DRACUT — A spectacular celestial show unfolded this month, just out of sight of the naked eye, but still close enough to dazzle the internet and amateur photographers across the hemisphere.
The comet — one of millions of icy bodies in the solar system that NASA says are roughly 4.6 billion years old — sped past the Earth at thousands of mph just weeks after it was first discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft on March 27.
Named after the spacecraft that discovered it, comet NEOWISE — short for C/2020 F3 NEOWISE — has been dazzling photographers and those with a will to see it throughout July. It came closest to Earth on Wednesday, according to NASA.
NASA says the comet never actually came closer than 64 million miles from Earth, but it is visible with as little as binoculars or a zoom lens because it passed extremely close to the sun — inside the orbit of Mercury, which is about 800 degrees on its surface. Passing that close to the sun caused water ice on the comet’s surface to melt, unleashing a “tail” of gas and dust that now stretches for hundreds of thousands of miles into space.
Sunlight reflecting off that tail has made the comet extraordinarily visible throughout most of July as the comet passed the Earth on it’s way back into the farthest reaches of the solar system. NASA says the comet’s elliptical orbit is so large it will be 6,800 years before the comet again visits Earth and the sun.
Now melted from its pass near the sun, the comet will freeze solid again as it heads back out into space, according to NASA.
And while the comet may sound like a strange and distant traveler from a cold and far off place, NASA says comets may actually have provided some of the building blocks of life to the young Earth over 3 billion years ago. It is widely believed that comets may have been the source of organic compounds.
While comets are relatively common in the solar system, it is rare for one to put on such a show, with the Hale Bopp comet in 1997 being the last one to give everyone so much to gaze at.
For more information on the comet, photos from the International Space Station, and more, visit: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146996/comet-neowise-brightens-the-night.