See our solar system’s newest spectacle, comet NEOWISE, in glorious detail

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.

unprocessed image from the WISPR instrument on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE
An unprocessed image from the WISPR instrument onboard NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, shortly after its closest approach to the sun. The sun is out of frame to the left. The faint grid pattern near the center of the image is an artifact of the way the image is created. The small black structure near the lower left of the image is caused by a grain of dust resting on the imager’s lens NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher

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.

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows greater detail in the twin tails of comet NEOWISE
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, 2020. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

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.”

The comet will be visible over this weekend and early next week as well. If you’d like to look for the comet yourself, Sky and Telescope has a guide to spotting NEOWISE from home.

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