NASA Reveals Incredible New Photos of Comet NEOWISE As It Streaks Toward Earth

Comet NEOWISE was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer on March 27. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher

A rare, super-bright comet called NEOWISE is flying across the night sky right now. Several space missions have captured dazzling imagery of the shooting star in recent weeks. And you may have a chance to spot it with the naked eye soon.

The comet was discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) on March 27. As it flew closer to the sun and Earth in late June and early July, it became visible to spacecraft originally placed to observe the sun.

From June 22 through June 27, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), tracked NEOWISE’s trajectory toward perihelion, or its closest approach to the sun, with a coronagraph, which uses a solid disk to block out the sun’s bright surface so as to reveal its surrounding objects.

On June 24, NASA’s sun-studying probe, the Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO), snapped a clear photo of NEOWISE, in which the comet looked like a fireball zipping through the night sky.

This image of comet NEOWISE was captured by NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or STEREO, on June 24, 2020, as the comet approached the Sun. NASA/STEREO/William Thompson

Then, on July 5, another NASA sun-observing spacecraft, Parker Solar Probe (PSP), took an ultra-high-resolution image of NEOWISE right after the it passed perihelion. The PSP photo, released on July 10, shows two tails on NEOWISE—a broad, fuzzy tail made of dust and a thinner upper tail made of ionized gas. There might be even more to unpack, NASA said. 

“Parker Solar Probe’s images appear to show a divide in the ion tail. 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,” NASA officials wrote in a description of the photo.

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. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher

Processed data from the WISPR instrument on NASA’s Parker Solar Probe 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. NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

Also on July 5, the International Space Station captured an image of NEOWISE flying near Earth’s atmosphere when it orbited above the Mediterranean Sea.

The small shooting star in the lower center of this image is Comet Neowise pictured from the International Space Station on July 5, 2020 as it orbited above the Mediterranean Sea in between Tunisia and Italy. NASA

If you wish to catch a glimpse of NEOWISE yourself, the best time to look up is right before dawn or just after sunset. The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on July 22 and should be visible low in the northwestern sky any day now.

NASA will host a “Science Live” broadcast talking about NEOWISE at 3 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

NASA Reveals Incredible New Photos of Comet NEOWISE As It Streaks Toward Earth