Many or all comets visible to the naked eye are referred to as Great Comets of their year(s). Might NEOWISE too be called like this? Why or why not? Is the IAU responsible for declaration of Great Comets or another organization or no such body?

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    $\begingroup$ Did you read the Wiki article on great comets. There's no formal definition, but I don't think NEOWISE is "great" enough. $\endgroup$
    – pela
    Jul 17, 2020 at 22:09
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with pela that visible to the eye is not enough to be Great. $\endgroup$
    – JohnHoltz
    Jul 17, 2020 at 23:00
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    $\begingroup$ @pela The comets McNaught and Lovejoy weren't that visible either but are referred to as Great Comets anyway. Or did I miss something? $\endgroup$
    – Ioannes
    Jul 18, 2020 at 6:12
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    $\begingroup$ Unless it gets an unexpected outburst in the next few days, I think it'll be the "Pretty Good Comet of 2020". $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jul 21, 2020 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ @userLTK, if you're far enough north, it's both a sunset and a pre-dawn comet. Once you get above about the 45th parallel, the comet never sets. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Jul 23, 2020 at 0:36

2 Answers 2


I'm inclined to say a hard no using the casual definition of a "great comet"

A great comet is a comet that becomes exceptionally bright. There is no official definition; often the term is attached to comets such as Halley's Comet, which during certain appearances are bright enough to be noticed by casual observers who are not looking for them, and become well known outside the astronomical community.

So, there's a dual definition of visible brightness and/or recognition outside the astronomical community. With that in mind, I think it's pretty clear that Comet NEOWISE doesn't make the cut due to it not being easily visible Granted, it peaks in 2 days from now (7-23-20) but so far it's hard to see by the naked eye and that's not likely to change significantly as it peaks.

Although it’s brighter than all but around 20 stars, its extended, diffuse nature makes it a challenge for human eyes.

NEOWISE is the brightest comet since comet McNaught, but McNaught, with a peak mangitude of -5.5, was about 500 times brighter. (based on the estimate that Neowise is about as bright as the 20th brightest star, roughly 1.25 magnitude). McNaught was actually brighter than peak Venus, though it probably didn't look that bright to the naked eye because it was more spread out.

Comet Lovejoy was a bit unusual. It's "greatness" had nothing to do with it's visibility, which was unspectacular. Lovejoy passed too close to the Sun and it lost too much material in passing, so it was much anticipated and I remember articles saying it was potentially a super-comet, but it lost everything on the other side of the sun and we never got a good view from Earth. Perhaps if we'd been on Mercury or Earth's L3 trojan point, we'd have seen a rare and magnificent show.

Wikipedia doesn't list Comet Lovejoy in it's list of great comets.

  • $\begingroup$ That's interesting, even small spacecraft with a heliostated telescopes at L3 or maybe a trio at L3, L4 and L5 would be very useful to keep an eye on comets we can't see when things get interesting. It would be great if there were a low-cost way to get them there! $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Jul 21, 2020 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ @uhoh I think for sun-grazers, especially those that pass on the far-side of the Sun, L3, L4 or L5 could be useful. For more distant comets like NEOWISE, Earth orbiting telescopes are probably fine for the most part, at least to my understanding. $\endgroup$
    – userLTK
    Jul 22, 2020 at 19:59

I've seen it a few times over the last six nights.

The Comet of 2020? No problem.

Great? Not unless something very unexpected happens to it in the next few days.

It's a sight well worth the effort of looking and one you will remember if you get a good view of it.


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