Jul 21, 2020 - Science

The science we can learn from Comet NEOWISE

A shooting star.
Comet NEOWISE seen from the ground. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The new comet gracing skies in the Northern Hemisphere provides scientists with an opportunity to learn more about these mysterious, icy objects from relatively close range.

Why it matters: Comets are thought to be leftovers from the dawn of the solar system. Learning more about their nature could help scientists piece together answers about how our part of space formed and even how water was delivered to Earth billions of years ago.

Driving the news: Comet NEOWISE can now be seen with the naked eye by observers on the ground, but NASA scientists and others are training powerful telescopes in space and on Earth on the comet.

  • "We now have a really spectacular look at it. We can really study it up close with many, many different instruments and cameras. So it offers the opportunity to gather a lot of extra data," Amy Mainzer, the NEOWISE project's principal investigator, said during a press briefing.
  • Scientists are planning to gather data about the light signature emitted by the comet in order to learn more about its chemical makeup.
  • Many comets break up when they make their close approaches to the Sun, so studying Comet NEOWISE's survival could help shed some light on why the structures of some comets were built to last while others weren't.

The big picture: It's rare for a comet this large and bright to come this close to Earth, and this comet won't be back around again for about another 7,000 years.

  • NASA's Parker Solar Probe and astronauts on the International Space Station have already caught glimpses of the comet.
  • The space agency may also plan to get a look at it with the Hubble Space Telescope and other large telescopes once the comet moves a bit farther from the Sun, making observation safer for the sensitive observatories.
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