News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Brightest comet in years soars over Sisters

A celestial visitor that hasn’t been around these parts in about 6,800 years is currently putting on an impressive display in Sisters’ skies. The cosmic traveler is comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3, found on March 27 by the Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite, and it has turned out to be the brightest comet in years.

Early last spring astronomers speculated that newly discovered comets Atlas and Swan might become easy naked-eye objects as they approached the inner solar system. Unfortunately, neither of them could take the heat from the sun and broke apart. So far, third time seems to be the charm as NEOWISE is holding up much better.

After cruising inside the orbit of Mercury, the comet made its closest approach to the sun on Friday, July 3, at a distance of approximately 27 million miles, when it became bright enough to see without optical aid. Although it is currently receding from the sun, NEOWISE will pass closest to the earth on July 22, at which time the two bodies will be separated by a perfectly safe 64 million miles.

Earlier in the month the comet was located near the northeastern horizon about an hour and a half before sunrise. But it is slowly tracking westward across the northern sky and, according to NASA, will be best viewed from mid-July on as an evening object above the northwestern horizon. The big question is for how long will NEOWISE remain bright? Even if the comet does drop below naked-eye detection toward the end of the month, it will still be a fine sight in a pair of binoculars.

Some of the area’s amateur astronomers have already captured many striking images of the comet, some of which can be viewed on the Sisters Astronomy Club’s Facebook page (

While it’s true that NEOWISE does not measure up as one of brightest comets ever to grace our skies, such as Hale-Bopp did in 1997, it’s still worthy of a good look.


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