NASA’s Parker Solar Probe recently captured images of the fast-moving comet NEOWISE,media reported. The comet was only discovered in late March and is officially named C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, although the instrument that originally discovered it was known as the Wide Area Infrared Survey Explorer.
This is a rare “new visitor” from the nearest star deep in the solar system. Earlier this month, NEOWISE passed through Mercury’s orbit for the first time, surviving at temperatures high enough to burn its outermost layer on a long, fragmented tail. NEOWISE is visible in a variety of ways during its travels. The most impressive, however, must be the capture of the Parker Solar Probe, which is positioned to collect data from the sun. In the process, June 28 — On the fifth time the probe flew over the sun, it also took pictures of comets.
Despite being equipped with a variety of instruments, the Parker Solar Probe used its solar detector to take this new image using a wide-area imager (WISPR). It is sensitive to visible light, which shows the comet’s split “tail”, one larger and the other smaller. NASA explains that the lower “tail” is neoWISE’s dust tail. That’s when dust is picked up from the comet’s nucleus, and when it runs at high speed in space, it’s dragged behind. As for the upper “tail”, it is made up of ionized gases, produced by the sun’s bright light.
While the images themselves are impressive, they also open a door for us to gain a new understanding of comets and their physical properties. For example, a lower “tail” can help scientists figure out how big the dust particles are and how quickly NEOWISE loses them. The upper “tail” is more interesting because it seems to have been divided. NASA speculates that this could mean that NEOWISE actually has two ion tails.
While the Parker Solar Probe may be a complex instrument, NEOWISE is no stranger to audiences on Earth. The comet, which is about three miles in diameter, can be seen from the ground, even though it is about 64 million miles from our planet. But the time remaining for the instrument WISE to discover it is running out.
NASA launched WISE as early as late 2009 and had planned to allow the mission to last only seven months. Soon, it will go out of orbit and burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. NASA hopes it will be replaced by the Near-Earth Object Surveillance Mission (NEOSM), which will help identify asteroids approaching Earth.