Cosmic interloper Comet NEOWISE Marches in July’s morning planet parade.
by Jeffrey L. Hunt
Comet NEOWISE joins the morning planet parade again this morning. The unexpected surprise in the morning sky this year is the comet. It joins a parade of planets in the pre-sunrise sky.
As the photo indicates, Comet NEOWISE (formally known as Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE) is low in the northeastern sky during early morning twilight. Find a clear horizon (or a gap in the trees or houses) to see it. The comet is easy to see without a binocular or telescope, but a binocular assists in finding the location.
The comet is to the lower left of the bright star Capella.
Comets are icy debris, theorized to be left over from the formation of the solar system. Normally invisible, these frozen icebergs vaporize when they approach the sun, forming the comet’s characteristic tail.
Many comets are observed every year, but infrequently they become bright enough to be seen without a telescope. Comet NEOWISE is the best visual comet seen from the northern hemisphere since Comet Hale-Bopp that was visible in 1997.
Comet NEOWISE becomes visible higher in the evening sky in a few evenings as well as shining in the morning sky.
Meanwhile the planet parade continues from the east-northeast tree line to the southwest skyline. The current best part of this parade is Venus appearing to move through the Hyades star cluster. The mass of stars, along with Aldebaran, makes a sideways “V” that represents the head of Taurus the Bull.
This morning Venus is 1.0° to the upper left of Aldebaran. A binocular helps when identifying the changing position of Venus in Taurus.
The moon is in the region on the morning of July 17, grouping with Venus, Aldebaran, and the Hyades. With the Pleiades nearby, this will be a picturesque view. Get your camera ready for this spectacular scene!
Mercury joins the planet parade beginning July 19, when the “Classic 9” planets are in the sky simultaneously with the moon, about 45 minutes before sunrise.
Farther west, the gibbous moon is to the right of Mars. Its brightness, causes an extra image in the photo above.
Mars is marching eastward in the constellation Cetus, near the dim star 14 Ceti (14 Cet on the photo above) and below 44 Piscium (44 Psc). Watch it continue to move eastward with a binocular.
Mars is at opposition on October 13, 2020.
Still Farther west, Jupiter and Saturn are low in the southwestern sky. They are retrograding in eastern Sagittarius. This perceived motion is an illusion as our planet approaches and passes a planet farther from the sun than Earth. We pass between Jupiter and the sun on July 14 and Saturn 6 days later.
In the image above, note that Jupiter is to the lower right of 56 Sagittarii (56 Sgr). If you enlarge the image, you can see at least one of the four largest jovian satellites.
Saturn is to the lower right of Sigma Capricorni (σ Cap).
With a binocular watch the planets move away from the star referenced on the image during the next several days.
Jupiter and Saturn reverse their directions in September. Jupiter inches toward Saturn, passing it on December 21, 2020 in a Great Conjunction. This once-in-a-generation conjunction is the closest since the Jupiter – Saturn conjunction of 1623.
For more about the planets see this article about where to find them during July.