The Hubble Space Telescope captured a spectacular photograph of Comet NEOWISE on August 8th during its long voyage to outer space. The picture shows the comet’s massive coma which is the cloud of gas and dust around it.
It was NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) mission that first noticed the comet back in March of this year. It made its closest approach to the sun on July 3rd and it certainly put on a spectacular sky show for people here on Earth, specifically those living in the Northern Hemisphere and especially on July 22nd when it made its closest approach to Earth.
It was also history-making in regards to the telescope as NASA explained in a statement, “This the first time Hubble has photographed a comet of this brightness at such resolution after this close of a pass by the sun.” It was actually quite surprising that the nucleus stayed together while traveling past the sun.
Qicheng Zhang, who is a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology and who led the imaging campaign, detailed how incredible it was that the telescope was able to capture such a great image. “Hubble has far better resolution than we can get with any other telescope of this comet.” “That resolution is very key for seeing details very close to the nucleus. It lets us see changes in the dust right after it’s stripped from that nucleus due to solar heat, sampling dust as close to the original properties of the comet as possible.”
It is believed that the nucleus is just 3 miles across but the cloud of gas and dust around it is huge at approximately 11,000 miles across. There were two cone-shaped jets that appeared on both sides of the NEOWISE’s center. The jets were created by the sun’s energy hitting the surface of the comet which turned the ice from solid to gas underneath it and then squeezing out of it. The new picture that NASA released of Comet NEOWISE can be seen here.
Scientists are optimistic that by snapping photos of the comet, they’ll have a better understanding of the dust from when our solar system was very young. In addition to that, they hope to study the color changes of the comet’s dust while it is travelling away from us (at a fast speed of 144,000 miles per hour) in order to find out how the sun’s heat may change the structure and composition of its coma.
Those who were able to catch a glimpse of the comet when it passed by Earth were lucky because it won’t return again for another 6,800 years.