Our part of the solar system has a spectacular new visitor, a comet technically identified as C/2020 F3 NEOWISE but more commonly called simply NEOWISE. This bright comet passed extremely close to the sun last week and is now visible, even with the naked eye, as it speeds away from the sun toward Earth.
The comet is named after the mission which discovered it, a NASA mission to survey near-Earth objects, the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE. The mission first detected the comet in March this year.
“In its discovery images, comet NEOWISE appeared as a glowing, fuzzy dot moving across the sky even when it was still pretty far away. As soon as we saw how close it would come to the sun, crossing inside the orbit of Mercury, we had hopes that it would put on a good show,” Amy Mainzer, principal investigator of NEOWISE, said in a statement.
The comet was captured in glorious detail this week by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which is currently in orbit around the sun and was able to image the comet using its Wide-Field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR) instrument. Although this instrument is primarily designed for capturing images of the sun and solar winds, it was also able to capture the comet due to its high level of sensitivity which allowed it to see the comet’s tails.
NASA has released both the unprocessed image taken by WISPR and a processed version which shows off greater detail of the comet.
Being able to image the comet in such detail has helped astronomers understand more about its properties. “From its infrared signature, we can tell that it’s about 5 kilometers, or 3 miles, across,” Joseph Masiero, NEOWISE Deputy Principal Investigator, said in the statement, “and by combining the infrared data with visible light images, we can tell that the comet’s nucleus is covered with sooty, dark particles leftover from its formation near the birth of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago.”
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