Still-visible Comet Neowise may have two ion tails

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Still visible in the night sky, comet C/2020 F3 Neowise, named after the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer space telescope, may have two ion tails and a dust tail. Until now, the comet appeared to have a single ion tail.

The Parker Solar Probe launched in 2018 to study the sun, but the probe also recently pointed its Wispr instrument at Comet Neowise. Normally, that instrument takes pictures of the sun’s outer atmosphere and solar wind in visible light, but Wispr’s sensitivity also makes it great for seeing fine details in structures such as a comet’s tail, according to NASA.

NASA says a recent image from this probe seems to indicate a separation is present in the upper ion tail. That could mean that Neowise has two ion tails, in addition to the much larger and more visible dust tail. The space agency says that scientists can only confirm this possibility until they have more data and have completed more analyses.

At right, a July 5 raw image taken from the Wispr instrument aboard the Parker Solar Probe. In addition, an edited image based on data also collected on July 5. Here, the brightness of the sunlight has been filtered out and the contrast has been increased to show more detail in the tails.

On July 3, Neowise reached perihelion, the closest point to the sun in its orbit. It has an orbital period of about seven thousand years. Its proximity to the sun causes the comet’s outer layers to boil, causing gas and dust to erupt from the icy surface, leaving a large tail of debris. The tails are created by the pressure of sunlight. The lower, largest and clearest tail is formed by dust and evaporated ice, which reflects sunlight well. A less visible tail can also be seen at the top: the ion tail. It is formed by gas that is ionized by the sun’s light and pushed outward by the magnetic fields in the solar wind. The ions fluoresce in sunlight.

While Comet Neowise is not as impressive and not as easy to see in the night sky as Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, Neowise can still be seen with the naked eye. This can be difficult in places with a lot of light pollution. The comet can be found in the north-northwest. It can be seen below the Big Dipper and near the bright star Capella. Neowise is not too far above the horizon, so a high viewing position or a wide view without too high objects in front of the horizon is crucial to be able to observe it. It is best viewed at the beginning of the night. To find it, the photo mode of a smartphone or binoculars can be helpful.

Professor Miloslav Druckmuller made one from the Czech Republic on July 10 impressive close-up photo of Neowise and from it International Space Station so is the comet captured. Based on the images from the ISS is also one timelapse series in 4k posted on YouTube.

Image of March 27, when the comet was discovered. This one was taken with the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The comet is seen here as a series of red dots. The image is a composite of heat-sensitive infrared images. Own photo taken on July 11 at 3:07 am. Shot with Nikon D500: 70mm, f/5.6, 10s, iso 800

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