Stargazers and space fans have a chance for the next week to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it heads out into the depths of space for the next 6,800 years.

Comets like this aren’t always visible to the naked eye, University of North Dakota professor Mike Gaffey said. It depends on how close it is to Earth and how active it is.

“Most comets are too faint to be seen without a telescope,” said Gaffey, an expert in celestial objects, such as comets.

The comet, which NASA says is 3 miles wide, is made of ice. It was first discovered in March by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission. It’s covered in soot left over from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago, NASA says.

As comets orbit close to the sun they heat up and spew gases and dust in a glowing head, which is what forms the tail stretching across the sky.

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Processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows greater detail in the twin tails of comet NEOWISE, as seen on July 5. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail.
(Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg)
Processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows greater detail in the twin tails of comet NEOWISE, as seen on July 5. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail. (Photo credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg)

How to view Comet NEOWISE

NASA says if you’re looking at the sky without the help of a telescope or binoculars, the comet “will likely look like a fuzzy star with a bit of a tail.” Using a set of binoculars will help people see the comet clearer, Gaffey said.

For those hoping to catch a glimpse comet, here’s what NASA recommends:

  • Find a spot away from city lights with an unobstructed view of the sky;

  • Just after sunset, look below the Big Dipper in the northwest sky;

  • If you have them, bring binoculars or a small telescope to get the best views of this dazzling display.

Skychart showing the location of Comet C/2020 F3 just after sunset, July 15 through 23.
(Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Skychart showing the location of Comet C/2020 F3 just after sunset, July 15 through 23. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

When to see it

WDAY meteorologist Jesse Ritka said this weekend may be the best time to view the comet.

Friday may bring severe storms, rain and clouds, but skies may be clearer Saturday and Sunday. She said the best time to see the comet after sunset would be from 10 p.m. to midnight.

Additionally, if people want to take a picture of it, they will need to set a five- to 15-second exposure for best results.

It’s also visible just before dawn, according to Gaffey, noting that, during the evening, it’s best to look to the northwest part of the sky and at dawn to the northeast.

“The comet will be closest to us on July 22 but really this weekend will be great as we are approaching the new moon on July 20 so there won't be a bright moon in the sky to make the comet seem more faint,” Ritka said.

The comet will still be visible through the end of July but, after Wednesday, July 22, it will start heading toward the outer edges of the solar system so it won't be as vibrant or easy to spot.

“But thankfully, it's not a one-night viewing phenomenon so we have several more chances to spot it regardless of the weather,” she said. “And do try to catch it since it won't be back in our solar system for another 6,800 years!”

Learn more about the comet with this NASA video: