By Marcia Dunn
Cape Canaveral, FL (AP) – A newly discovered comet is streaking past Earth, providing a stunning nighttime show after buzzing the sun and expanding its tail.
Comet Neowise, the brightest comet visible from the Northern Hemisphere in a quarter-century, swept within Mercury’s orbit about two weeks ago. Its close proximity to the sun caused dust and gas to burn off its surface and create an even bigger debris tail.
Comet Neowise has been visible in the east-northeast sky with the naked eye about an hour before sunrise for the past month. The comet, which NASA says could become known as the “Great Comet of 2020,” is going prime time, though, and this week is visible in the evening sky.
It will appear to zoom across the northwestern sky about an hour after sunset, below the Big Dipper, according to NASA.
The best dates to see it are now through Sunday, July 19th.
NASA’s Neowise infrared space telescope discovered the comet in March.
Scientists involved in the mission said the comet is about 3 miles across. Its nucleus is covered with sooty material dating back to the origin of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
The comet will be visible across the Northern Hemisphere until mid-August, when it heads back toward the outer solar system. While it’s visible with the naked eye in dark skies with little or no light pollution, binoculars are needed to see the long tail, according to NASA.
It will be about 7,000 years before the comet returns, “so I wouldn’t suggest waiting for the next pass,” said the telescope’s deputy principal investigator Joe Masiero of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
He said it is the brightest comet to visit Earth’s atmosphere since Comet Hale-Bopp made an appearance in 1997.
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station have already seen the comet.
NASA’s Bob Behnken shared a spectacular photo of the comet on social media showing central Asia in the background and the space station in the foreground.
“Stars, cities, spaceships, and a comet!” he tweeted from orbit.