Best comet show in 20 years: How to catch NEOWISE in East Tennessee

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – For East Tennesseans, the best comet show in 20 years has been going on this month — and it’s not too late to catch it. In fact, by early next week, viewing times are in the evenings instead of early mornings.

So says Sean Lindsay, astronomy coordinator/research and assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Tennessee. You can hear the excitement in his voice when he starts talking about viewing NEOWISE, a comet just discovered March 27 that won’t be visible again to the naked eye from Earth for another 6,800 years.

“You got me on a topic I’m pretty excited about,” he freely admits. “It’s the best comet I’ve seen in 20 years. It has been easily visible with the naked eye.” (See some of his photos with this story.)

NEOWISE will be visible in the evenings

The NEOWISE comet has been visible from East Tennessee for most of this month, but you had to get up early. “The best night I saw it on July 9th. I went up to Foothills Parkway,’ Lindsay said. But it was also 5:30 a.m.

This week the comet is transitioning from being visible in the early morning hours to being visible at night. And if the weather cooperates, the best viewing might just be Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday ( July 19, 20 and 21). “I tried to give you my sweet spots on dates,” Lindsay said.

The comet is technically called Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE and Lindsay said you can find it in the northwest sky just below the Big Dipper from probably 9:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. early next week. The best time will likely be around 10 p.m.

This photograph of the NEOSWISE comet was shot at 5:44 a.m. on July 9, 2020, at Foothills Parkway West Overlook #1 with a Canon 6D. The 70-200 mm lens was set to 200mm at f/4 with a 5-second ISO 200. (Photo courtesy of Sean Lindsay)

On Sunday, the comet will be at 15 degrees above the horizon, or about a fist-and-a-half above the horizon, Lindsay said. It’ll be slightly higher in the sky on Monday, but it is beginning to get dimmer.

The views has been impressive.

“If it’s like it was the other day, you see the main part of the comet and the tail very clearly with the naked eye,” he said.

Where to view NEOWISE

“I would really, really recommend getting out of Knoxville” for the best viewing, he said.

“I’m probably going to go to the Big South Fork,” he added. Just remember to do your planning in Eastern time. The Bandy Creek Campground which has a large parking lot might be the best viewing location.

Pickett CCC Memorial Park could also be a good viewing site. Other possibilities include a parking lot in Norris, a town which is fairly dark at night, and the Cosby or Greenbrier areas of Smokies. Foothills Parkway has several north-facing overlooks but “skyglow” from Knoxville might be an issue.

If need help finding the comet or want to track its path, Lindsay recommends using Stellarium. Many people have posted information on how to add the comet path to the astronomy program.

Lindsay shared this tip on finding good spots: He scopes out viewing lines of potential locations using the “Street View” feature in Google Maps.

“Hopefully, it’ll still put on a good show, but if not, it’s not my fault,” he said, joking that comets are a bit like cats: “They all have tails, but you can’t predict what they will do,” he said.

Want to learn more: NASA scientists will be answering questions about the comet on Wednesday at 3 p.m.

This photograph was taken at Norris Dam Marina on Norris Lake at 5:45 a.m. on July 12, 2020. It was shot with a Canon 6D with a 70-200mm lens set at 70mm and f/4. The exposure time was 4 seconds at ISO 320. (Photo courtesy of Sean Lindsay)


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