Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE above the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman. Resembling a large star with a glowing tail, NEOWISE is a chunk of icy and sooty rock roughly 3 miles wide that has been wandering the solar system for more than 4 billion years, according to NASA. The tail is a result of illuminated dust and ionized gases that are vaporized from the comet’s surface as it nears the sun.

For the next couple weeks, the northern nighttime sky holds a visual treat that’s well worth seeing, according to Montana State University researcher Joe Shaw.

The comet known as NEOWISE “is pretty spectacular,” said Shaw, a sky-viewing enthusiast and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. “It’s bigger and brighter than any comet I’ve seen since the ‘90s.”

Resembling a large star with a glowing tail, NEOWISE is a chunk of icy and sooty rock roughly 3 miles wide that has been wandering the solar system for more than 4 billion years, according to NASA. The tail is a result of illuminated dust and ionized gases that are vaporized from the comet’s surface as it nears the sun.

While a recent comet had tail more like a dull “smudge,” Shaw said, with NEOWISE “it’s a long streak. It’s really very pretty.”

The next week or so offers prime viewing, and the best time to see NEOWISE against a dark sky is between roughly 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. as the comet rises in the northeastern sky, according to Shaw. Starting this week, viewers can also spot the comet shortly after nightfall as it descends in the northwest.

As the comet continues its journey though the solar system, those times and locations will shift, and an online sky viewing tool like Stellarium can help keep track, Shaw said. In general, NEOWISE will appear increasingly higher in the northwest at nightfall. By early August, it will set around 1 a.m. and not appear later in the night.

Getting away from city lights and using an ordinary pair of binoculars helps the comet to visually “pop,” Shaw said.

Luckily, the NEOWISE comet will stay a safe 64 million miles from Earth. “But is sure is putting on a show,” Shaw said.