NASA’s Parker Solar Probe was at the right place at the right time to capture a unique view of comet NEOWISE late last week. The US space agency’s Parker Solar Probe’s position in supplying the spacecraft with an unmatched view of the comet’s twin tails.
These tails were particularly active immediately after its closest approach to the Sun, known as the perihelion.
The comet was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) on March 27.
Ever since, the comet — called comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE and nicknamed comet NEOWISE — has been spotted by several NASA spacecraft, including Parker Solar Probe, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, the ESA (European Space Agency)/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).
The latest image of Comet NEOWISE is unprocessed data from Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR instrument.
Such ionised gases are buffeted by the solar wind — the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetised material.
This process creates the ion tail that extends directly away from the Sun.
NASA’s Parker Solar Probe’s photos seem to show a divide in the ion tail.
This may mean Comet NEOWISE has two ion tails, in addition to its dust tail.
However, scientists will require more data and analysis to confirm this theory.
The space agency said: “The comet cruised just inside Mercury’s orbit on July 3.
“This very close passage by the Sun is cooking the comet’s outermost layers, causing gas and dust to erupt off the icy surface and creating a large tail of debris.
“And yet the comet has managed to survive this intense roasting.
“People wishing to catch a glimpse of the glowing comet can spot it as it swings through the inner solar system, but its nearness to the Sun creates some observing challenges.
“For the next few days it will be visible about an hour before sunrise, close to the horizon in the northeastern sky in the United States.
“Observers might be able to see the comet’s central core, or nucleus, with the naked eye in dark skies; using binoculars will give viewers a good look at the fuzzy comet and its long, streaky tail.”