Like this spring’s bioluminescent waves, nature is working its magic right when we could most use a pick-me-up—and this time, we don’t all need to descend upon the beaches to see it.
Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE (or Comet NEOWISE for short) has been visibly streaking across the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. And after a brush with the Sun, which has caused a visible tail of debris in its wake, it’s circling back toward the outer reaches of our solar system and getting even easier to see.
For the past few days, you would’ve had to wake up early (like 4am early) to catch a glimpse of the comet in Los Angeles. But starting this week, you’ll be able to spot NEOWISE about an hour after sunset (which is currently just after 8pm in L.A.) according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The fuzzy-looking comet, which measures about five kilometers across, might even be visible with the naked eye if weather conditions cooperate, but JPL suggests using a pair of binoculars for a better view.
As you see more and more picture-perfect images of NEOWISE pop up on social media, remember that these shots are often captured with long exposures—so don’t get frustrated if your view isn’t quite as vibrant. Despite the many dramatic images, from L.A. you’re more likely to spot a small, star-sized dot with a faint trail behind it.
If you head over to the web app Stellarium, you can track where exactly NEOWISE will appear in the sky based on your location (the short of it: look to the northwest after sunset, a bit below the Big Dipper). Earlier in the week, there’ll be a pretty narrow window between sunset and when the comet dips below the horizon. But each evening, NEOWISE will appear higher and higher in the sky; by later this week, you should have a couple of hours of visibility as it appears considerably higher, which is helpful for those of us with hills or mountains blocking our view. On July 22, NEOWISE will make its closest approach to Earth at what JPL calls “a harmless distance” of 64 million miles (that’s just under the distance between the Earth and Mars, to put it into perspective).
As far as spotting the comet here in L.A. specifically, you’ll need a clear view of the northwest sky, which you may very well have from your own home. Depending on where exactly you are in L.A., the forecast calls for clear skies or a little bit of clouds this week; if you’re staying put and trying to view from home, you as might as well just pop your head outside each night and see if you can glimpse it. Of course, L.A.’s sprawling light pollution complicates things a bit: In our experience, the combination of routine haze and smog and ubiquitous glow of city lights means you’ll just barely make out the faintest hint of the trail with your bare eyes. Only when snapping a photo of the sky with our phone’s camera in night mode were we positive that we’d spotted NEOWISE; we’d suggest that as a good starting point for trying to spot it, as well as first finding the Big Dipper and then scanning the sky about halfway between the horizon and the bottom of that constellation..
If you really want optimal viewing conditions, Dark Site Finder lists Mojave National Preserve and Joshua Tree National Park dark sites. Closer to home, we’d typically recommend areas within the Santa Monica Mountains, along the beach near the Ventura County line and around parts of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, according to this light pollution map—but, depending on how deep into the mountains you head, hills along the horizon might block your early-week view in all but Palos Verdes.
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