UNITED STATES (CNN/AP) — A newly discovered comet is streaking past Earth, providing a stunning nighttime show after buzzing the sun and expanding its tail.
Comet NEOWISE swept within Mercury’s orbit a week ago. Its close proximity to the sun caused dust and gas to burn off its surface and create an even bigger debris tail. Now the comet is headed our way, with closest approach in two weeks. It is the first visible comet of 2020.
The comet, officially known as C/2020 F3, was spotted by NASA’s NEOWISE satellite in March, as it made its initial approach to the sun. It survived its loop around the sun and will be reaching the point in its orbit where it is closest to Earth in the next week.
Those in the northern hemisphere can catch this comet in the north sky for most of the month at early dawn and dusk. Comets often appear faint in the sky, so it is easiest to catch a glimpse in the early morning and evening, when there is just enough sunlight to see them against the night sky, but not so much they are washed out.
“For the northern hemisphere, it’s very low to the horizon in the early morning,” says Karl Battams, an astrophysicist with the Naval Research Laboratory. “People need to get up early, but it’s easily visible with binoculars.”
People already reported seeing NEOWISE earlier this week.
Several Ohioans have already caught glimpse of the comet.
The comet will be visible around the world until mid-August, when it heads back toward the outer solar system. While it’s visible with the naked eye in dark skies with little or no light pollution, binoculars are needed to see the long tail, according to NASA.
The comet got a special shout-out over the weekend from Bob Behnken, a NASA astronaut currently aboard the International Space Station after participating in the first launch of SpaceX Dragon Crew in May.
ISS astronaut Ivan Vagner also tweeted about the comet, noting its large, visible tail. The tail on NEOWISE could indicate that it is strong enough to remain intact in orbit.
In case you wondered, the comet does not pose any danger to the planet and will pass by harmlessly.
Part of the NEOWISE satellite operations is to help researchers distinguish between near-earth objects with dangerous orbits (potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs), and those that are not a threat, according to NASA. Its infrared lens allows it to see comets particularly well, as they are commonly darker objects in the night sky, says Battams.
NASA’s NEOWISE satellite launched first in 2009 as WISE. It’s relaunch in 2013 as NEOWISE brought with it a new mission: “to assist NASA’s efforts to identify and characterize the population of near-Earth objects,” says NASA.
“NEOWISE is a really crucial satellite for nearer or potentially hazardous asteroids,” says Battams. “It’s a really important satellite to have.”
During its tenure, NEOWISE has discovered hundreds of thousands of near-Earth objects, or NEOs. Data collected by NEOWISE is critical in mapping solar bodies and analyzing the trajectory of space objects, including this new comet.
With its Astronomy Picture of the Day program, NASA invites anyone — amateur to professional astronomers — to submit their own photos of cosmic events here.
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