KEY POINTS

  • NASA's Parker Solar Probe captured a photo of comet NEOWISE
  • The comet is bright enough to be spotted by the human eye
  • NASA's photo shows the two tails of comet NEOWISE

NASA’s robotic spacecraft was able to capture a new photo of a passing visible comet. The photo shows the distinct tails of the comet.

The comet photographed by NASA is known as C/2020 F3 or NEOWISE. It was first discovered by NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) telescope on March 27.

Earlier this month, the comet reached its closest distance to the Sun. Since then, the brightness of the comet has increased. After escaping the Sun’s glare, comet NEOWISE became visible from Earth. Images revealed that the comet has become bright enough to be spotted by the human eye.

On July 5, following the comet’s closest approach to the Sun, NASA was able to snap a photo of NEOWISE from space. The incredible image was captured by the agency’s Parker Solar Probe, a robotic spacecraft that was launched in 2018 to study the Sun and its atmosphere.

The photo was captured using the spacecraft’s Wide-field Imager for Solar Probe (WISPR), which are optical telescopes designed to take images of solar wind escaping from the Sun’s surface.

The image captured by the Parker Solar Probe clearly shows the two tails of comet NEOWISE. According to NASA, the lower tail of the comet was formed by the dust falling off from the surface of NEOWISE’s nucleus.  

Scientists plan to use the image taken by WISPR to know more about the dust found on the surface of comets. As for NEOWISE’s upper tail, NASA noted that this appeared due to the comet’s interaction with the intense light emitted by the Sun.

“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,” NASA explained in a statement. “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,” the agency added. “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.”

Comet NEOWISE An unprocessed 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. The Sun is out of frame to the left. The faint grid pattern near the center of the image is an artifact of the way the image is created. The small black structure near the lower left of the image is caused by a grain of dust resting on the imager’s lens. Photo: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher