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Comet NEOWISE lit up skies and social media

Comet NEOWISE blazed across the skies of the northern hemisphere and won't return for 6,800 years. If you missed it, never fear—the University of Utah community captured stunning photos of this once-in-a-lifetime cosmic event.

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.

PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Shapiro

Michael Shapiro, professor in the School of Biological Sciences, drove north to capture the comet in the dark skies near Clayton, Idaho. Follow Shapiro on Twitter @MikeDShapiro for photography and research.

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The comet falls across the sky over a reservoir with lights all around the outside of it.


Jeff McGrath, a graduate of mass communication, captured Comet Neowise near Strawberry Reservoir in Utah.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Shepherd

Jason Shepherd, associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology & Anatomy, captured Comet NEOWISE glittering across the sky and in the waters of the Great Salt Lake. For more amazing photographs and science, follow Shepherd on Twitter at @JasonSynaptic.

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The foreground is the silhouette of a tall spire in front of a purple sky at dust where a bright white comet plunges towards the horizon.

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Ricketts

Paul Ricketts, director of the South Physics Observatory, captured the Comet NEOWISE in Kodachrome Basin State Park in southern Utah. The Kodachrome spire stands in the foreground. For more of Ricketts' astrophotography, follow him on Instagram @astropgr.

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The comet shoots across a late dusk sky with colors fading from dark on the top to light near the horizon.

PHOTO CREDIT: Shelby Stock

Shelby Stock, dark sky programming with Utah State Parks & Recreation and telescope operator at the South Physics Observatory, captured NEOWISE over the Great Salt Lake State Park Marina.

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