NEW DELHI (TIP): Nasa’s NEOWISE spacecraft, which came out of a two year long sleep last year, has spotted a never-beforeseen comet —its first such discovery since coming out of hibernation late last year. The comet was spotted when it was 230 million kilometers from Earth. “We are so pleased to have discovered this frozen visitor from the outermost reaches of our solar system,” said Amy Mainzer, the mission’s principal investigator from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This comet is a weirdo — it is in a retrograde orbit, meaning that it orbits the sun in the opposite sense from Earth and the other planets.” The new comet, officially named “C/2014 C3 (NEOWISE)”, has a tail about 40,000 kilometers long.
Although the comet’s orbit is still a bit uncertain, it appears to have arrived from its most distant point in the region of the outer planets. According to Universe Today, the comet has a highly-eccentric 20- year orbit that takes it high above the plane of the solar system and out past the orbit of Jupiter. “Technically, with a perihelion distance greater than 1.3 astronomical units, comet C/2014 C3 does not classify as a near-earth object (and its orbit does not intersect earth’s.) But it’s still good to know that NEOWISE is looking out for us,” UT said.
The mission’s sophisticated software picked out the moving object against a background of stationary stars. As NEOWISE circled earth, scanning the sky, it observed the comet six times over half a day before the object moved out of its view. The discovery was confirmed by the Minor Planet Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts, when follow-up observations were received three days later from the Near Earth Object Observation project Spacewatch, Tucson, Arizona other follow-up observations were then quickly received. While this is the first comet NEOWISE has discovered since coming out of hibernation, the spacecraft is credited with the discovery of 21 other comets during its primary mission.
Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or NEOWISE spacecraft was originally called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). It was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed. In September 2013, it was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA’s efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-earth objects. NEOWISE will also characterize previously known asteroids and comets to better understand their sizes and compositions.