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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.

Go deeper

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Oct 20, 2020 - Science

NASA tags an asteroid

A global map of Bennu. Photo: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona

NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft briefly touched the surface of an asteroid Tuesday in a bid to collect a sample from the space rock that will one day be returned to Earth.

Why it matters: Scientist are hoping to study a sample from the asteroid, named Bennu, to piece together more about the solar system's evolution. Asteroids are thought to be leftovers from the formation of planets billions of years ago.

Trump grants flurry of last-minute pardons

Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty

President Trump issued 73 pardons and commuted the sentences of 70 individuals early Wednesday, 11 hours from leaving office.

Why it matters: It's a last-minute gift to some of the president's loyalists and an evident use of executive power with only hours left of his presidency. Axios reported in December that Trump planned to grant pardons to "every person who ever talked to me."

Trump revokes ethics order barring former aides from lobbying

Photo: Spencer Platt via Getty

Shortly after pardoning members of Congress and lobbyists convicted on corruption charges, President Trump revoked an executive order barring former officials from lobbying for five years after leaving his administration.

Why it matters: The order, which was signed eight days after he took office, was an attempt to fulfill his campaign promise to "drain the swamp."

  • But with less than 12 hours left in office, Trump has now removed those limitations on his own aides.