When European astronomers woke up this morning to photograph Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3), they saw something they didn’t expect.
The sunrise comet was surrounded by noctilucent clouds.
It was a rare morning, indeed.
On July 3rd, Comet NEOWISE flew past the sun near the orbit of Mercury. Some astronomers feared the comet might dissolve. Instead, it held together and became bright enough to see in morning twilight (currently at magnitude +2).
As July unfolds, Comet NEOWISE will move into progressively darker skies, further improving its visibility.
It will remain a morning comet for the next ~week, then shift mid-month to evening skies where casual star gazers can see it without waking at the crack of dawn.
They might see some noctilucent clouds, too.
Comets in ancient cultures
Comets have inspired dread, fear, and awe in many different cultures and societies around the world and throughout time. They have been branded with such titles as “the Harbinger of Doom” and “the Menace of the Universe.” They have been regarded both as omens of disaster and messengers of the gods. Why is it that comets are some of the most feared and venerated objects in the night sky?
Noctilucent clouds were first noticed in the mid-19th century after the eruption of super-volcano krakatoa. Volcanic ash spread through the atmosphere, painting vivid sunsets that mesmerized observers all around the world.
That was when the NLCs appeared. At first people thought they must be some side-effect of the volcano, but long after Krakatoa’s ash settled the noctilucent clouds remained.
So when the Harbinger of Doom meets mysterious clouds high in the atmosphere, there is really something weird and rare going on! Be ready!