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The Solar System Visits Us: Comet NEOWISE

With the lack of travel due to COVID, I was delighted to hear that the Earth has a visitor from the solar system—Comet NEOWISE. I’ve been looking at it from my back porch for the past 5 nights. Tonight will be its closest approach. I am able to see the comet head with my naked eye, but it appears as a fuzzy spot with no tail. With binoculars, I can see both the head and tail. If you recall, the last time a naked-eye comet appeared was in 1996, Comet Hale-Bopp.

The name puzzled me, both for its mouthful of letters and the uppercase treatment. The comet’s name is actually Comet C/2-2- F3 (NEOWISE). NEOWISE is an acronym for Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which is the NASA telescope that discovered the comet. Comet NEOWISE won’t be back for thousands of years, so tonight is the night to get yourself someplace dark where you can see it.

The image is processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. It 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 (caption and image): NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

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