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NASA's NEOWISE mission captured a series of pictures of comet C/2012
K1 -- also known as comet Pan-STARRS -- as it swept across our skies in
The comet is named after the astronomical survey project called the
Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System in Hawaii, which
discovered the icy visitor in May 2012.
Comet Pan-STARRS hails from the outer fringes of our solar system,
from a vast and distant reservoir of comets called the Oort cloud.
The comet is relatively close to us -- it was only about 143 million
miles (230 million kilometers) from Earth when this picture was taken.
It is seen passing a much more distant spiral galaxy, called NGC 3726,
which is about 55 million light-years from Earth, or 2 trillion times
farther away than the comet.
Two tails can be seen lagging behind the head of the comet. The
bigger tail is easy to see and is comprised of gas and smaller
particles. A fainter, more southern tail, which is hard to spot in this
image, may be comprised of larger, more dispersed grains of dust.
Comet Pan-STARRS is on its way around the sun, with its closest
approach to the sun occurring in late August. It was visible to viewers
in the northern hemisphere through most of June. In the fall, after the
comet swings back around the sun, it may be visible to southern
hemisphere viewers using small telescopes.
The image was made from data collected by the two infrared channels
on board the NEOWISE spacecraft, with the longer-wavelength channel
(centered at 4.5 microns) mapped to red and the shorter-wavelength
channel (3.4 microns) mapped to cyan. The comet appears brighter in the
longer wavelength band, suggesting that the comet may be producing
significant quantities of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide.
Originally called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the
NEOWISE spacecraft was put into hibernation 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 is
also characterizing previously known asteroids and comets to better
understand their sizes and compositions.
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the
NEOWISE mission for NASA's Near-Earth Object Observation Program of its
Planetary Science Division in Washington. The Space Dynamics Laboratory
in Logan, Utah, built the science instrument. Ball Aerospace &
Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colorado, built the spacecraft. Science
operations and data processing take place at the Infrared Processing and
Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Caltech manages JPL for NASA.