Although COVID-19 killed July’s fireworks, an epic cosmic display delighted stargazers across the Northern Hemisphere as Comet NEOWISE lit up the skies and social media feeds. The heavenly object made of ice, dust and rock orbits around our solar system in a massive loop that will return to Earth in 6,800 years, according to NASA. As NEOWISE slips ever farther from the sun, solar winds produce the glorious double tail that scientists estimate is 16 million km long. Dust makes up the yellowish sweeping tail, and ionized gas that was once ice makes up the thin blue tail.
“Earlier this year there was another comet that looked promising, but it broke apart when it got close to the sun,” said Paul Ricketts, director of the U’s South Physics Observatory. “NEOWISE is giving us a good show because it held together. But the heat and solar winds broke up the surface and released gasses enough to give us tail and the bright coma.”
NEOWISE was brightest at the beginning of the month when it was closest to the sun. It flew closest to the Earth on July 23 when skywatchers saw it glitter in the northwest under the Big Dipper constellation, just after sunset. If you hurry, you could still catch sight of it! Soon, it will begin its long journey past the outer planets into the farthest reaches of the solar system.
For those who missed it, never fear—the University of Utah community is here with the gear to capture stunning photos as NEOWISE flew near.