A 'strikingly beautiful' comet is lighting up Manitoba's skies — but it might not stay for long

Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 seemed relatively underwhelming when it was discovered a few months ago. But a sudden "outburst of activity" when it passed the sun turned it into one of the brightest comets in recent memory, says a Manitoba astronomer.

Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 became visible in the prairie province in the past week

Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3 could stay visible to the naked eye in Manitoba for a few more weeks. (Scott Young/Manitoba Museum)

A rare comet will be visible in Manitoba's evening sky for the next few weeks — but stargazers should try to catch a glimpse of it sooner rather than later, a Manitoba astronomer says.

"This really is a special event and we don't know how long it will be this bright," said Scott Young, planetarium astronomer at the Manitoba Museum.

Young said when the comet was discovered through the NEOWISE telescope (from which it takes its name: Comet NEOWISE C/2020 F3) earlier this year, it seemed fairly insignificant.

"This really sort of snuck up on us and surprised us," he said.

"We were not expecting it to be all that big of a deal when it was first discovered."

But the comet passed the sun and likely had some kind of "outburst of activity" that caused it to become much brighter than expected, Young said. Now, he said, people who want to see it while it's visible in Manitoba should check out the unpredictable comet while they still can.

"We don't know if it's going to have another outburst and get brighter or if it's going to suddenly fade away with no explanation as it moves from night to night," Young said.

People who want to get a glimpse of the comet should look toward the north sky without any trees or lights blocking their view, he said.

It has been visible in the early morning sky for a few days, but can now be seen in the evening sky for a few weeks — although it's not clear how long it will be bright enough to see with the naked eye.

'Brightest comet in the last 20 years'

The comet, which is an ancient ball of ice and rock that orbits the sun, likely came from the outer edges of the solar system, Young said.

"As far as we can tell, this is a comet that has never come through our neighborhood before. And it's on sort of a one-way trip around the sun and then back out into the depths of space," he said. 

"It's kind of like a frozen piece of the beginnings of a solar system that's suddenly coming into view for us, so scientists are really excited."

Manitoba astronomer Scott Young said he saw the rare comet a few mornings ago, driving outside Winnipeg to get away from the lights of the city. It didn't take long for him to spot the big, fuzzy ball with a long, curved tail sticking up from the horizon. (Scott Young/Manitoba Museum)

Normally, comets are only a few kilometres wide — largely invisible to most people, Young said. But when it approaches the sun, a comet's ice melts and releases a cloud of dust and gas that can stretch for much longer behind it.

"The tail can stretch for a million kilometres or more, and it's basically very reflective snowflakes and things like that. So it really catches the sun and becomes very, very visible," he said.

Young said the NEOWISE comet has only been visible in Manitoba for a few days. 

He saw it a few mornings ago, driving outside Winnipeg to get away from the lights of the city. And it didn't take long for him to spot the big, fuzzy ball with a long, curved tail sticking up from the horizon.

"It's strikingly beautiful … It's like seeing the Grand Canyon or a beautiful waterfall or any other natural phenomenon that's got inherent beauty to it," he said.

"And then the scientific side of my mind was like, 'Wow, this is the brightest comet in the last 20 years or so' … [but] all that sort of went into the background. I was just awestruck."

While the museum hasn't organized any public viewing sessions because of limitations on group sizes during the COVID-19 pandemic, Young said, there could be an online option in the works for those who can't get out of town to see it on their own.

Beginning July 12, Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE can be found in the evening sky. (Stellarium)

With files from Peggy Lam


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