NASA’s Solar Probe Spots Comet NEOWISE and its Two (Maybe Three) Tails

NEOWISE Parker 7-5-20
An image from the WISPR instrument on board NASA’s Parker Solar Probe shows comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020, shortly after its closest approach to the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher. Additional processing by Jason Major.)

As skywatchers around the world (and even above it!) are capturing increasingly beautiful views of the current naked-eye comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was able to grab a picture from a much different vantage point as it traveled beyond the orbit of Mercury on its way toward a July 11 flyby of Venus.

The image above was captured by the probe’s WISPR instrument on July 5, showing the comet’s lengthening dust and ion tails facing away from the Sun, which is off frame at the bottom (picture has been rotated and further processed from the original.) The comet was just two days after its closest approach to the Sun.

Find out how you can see comet NEOWISE for yourself below:

From a news release from NASA on July 10, 2020:

[Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)] was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or NEOWISE, on March 27. Since then, the comet has been spotted by several NASA spacecraft, including Parker Solar Probe, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

The image above is unprocessed data [editor’s note: I did some extra processing] from Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR instrument, which takes images of the Sun’s outer atmosphere and solar wind in visible light. WISPR’s sensitivity also makes it well-suited to see fine detail in structures like comet tails. Parker Solar Probe collected science data through June 28 for its fifth solar flyby, but the availability of additional downlink time allowed the team to take extra images, including this image of comet NEOWISE.

ISS063-E-39859
A view of approaching dawn on Earth and comet NEOWISE captured from the ISS on July 5, 2020 while over northeastern Iran. (NASA)

The twin tails of comet NEOWISE are seen more clearly in this image from the WISPR instrument, which has been processed to increase contrast and remove excess brightness from scattered sunlight, revealing more detail in the comet tails.

20200705t020949_bw
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.
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

The lower tail, which appears broad and fuzzy, is the dust tail of comet NEOWISE — created when dust lifts off the surface of the comet’s nucleus and trails behind the comet in its orbit. Scientists hope to use WISPR’s images to study the size of dust grains within the dust tail, as well as the rate at which the comet sheds dust.

The upper tail is the ion tail, which is made up of gases that have been ionized by losing electrons in the Sun’s intense light. These ionized gases are buffeted by the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetized material — creating the ion tail that extends directly away from the Sun. Parker Solar Probe’s images appear to show a divide in the ion tail. This could mean that comet NEOWISE has two ion tails, in addition to its dust tail, though scientists would need more data and analysis to confirm this possibility.

(Source release)

The 3-mile-wide comet is now on its path away from the Sun, continuing along on its 6,800-year-long orbit. It won’t come any closer to Earth than 64 million miles, making its closest approach on July 23.

Want to see NEOWISE for yourself? You don’t need any special equipment (although binoculars or a small telescope would be great), just clear and reasonably dark skies. Luckily it will be moving from pre-dawn to evening skies shortly! Find out here in a Sky at Night Magazine article by my fellow space-loving friend Stu Atkinson and here from SkyandTelescope.org.

NEOWISE from SkyAndTelescope
Viewing guides for comet NEOWISE in northern skies from Sky & Telescope

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