NASA’s Parker Solar Probe captured at the right place and the right time a fantastic view of comet NEOWISE on July 5, 2020.
Parker Solar Probe’s place in space offered the spacecraft a unique sight of the comet’s twin tails when it was particularly active. And such a thing right after its closest approach to the Sun, a thing dubbed perihelion. Here is what you need to know.
Comet NEOWISE Features and Other Significant Details
The comet was found by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also known as NEOWISE, on March 27. Since then, NEOWISE called comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE had been seen by several NASA spacecraft, such as the Parker Solar Probe, the ESA/NASA Solar, and Heliospheric Observatory, NASA’s Solar and Terrestrial Relations Observatory, and astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
One of the images captured represents unprocessed data from Parker Solar Probe’s WISPR device, which takes photos of our host star’s outer atmosphere and solar wind in visible light. WISPR’s sensitivity is also excellent to observe fine details in structures like comet tails. Parker Solar Probe gathered science data through June 28 for its fifth solar flyby. Still, the availability of extra downlink time enabled the team to capture more photos, including a unique view of comet NEOWISE.
The twin tails of comet NEOWISE can be spotted more clearly in WISPR’s images, which have been processed to enhance contrast and eliminate excess brightness from scattered sunlight, unveiling more detail in the comet tails. The lower tail, which is fuzzy and broad, represents the dust tail of comet NEOWISE – developed when dust lifts off the surface of the comet’s trails and nucleus behind then comet in its orbit. Researchers hope to utilize WISPR’s photographs to examine the size of dust grains within the dust tail and the rate at which the comet discharges dust.
The upper tail is an ion tail made up of gasses that have been ionized by losing electrons in the Sun’s intense light. These ionized gasses are struck by the solar wind – the Sun’s steady outflow of magnetized material – forming the ion tail that spreads directly away from the Sun.
The Parker Solar Probe’s pictures appear to display a divide in the ion tail. Such a thing could mean that comet NEOWISE possesses two ion tails, besides its dust tail. Researchers, however, still need more data to confirm this possibility.