Comet NEOWISE may have sodium tail, new images suggest

The NEWOWISE comet has excited researchers since it was first discovered in March. Now, new images of the celestial object reveal it may have a sodium tail.
The images, which were taken on July 8 by the Planetary Science Institute’s Input/Output facility, appear to show atomic sodium, which could aid in having researchers learn more about the object, previously known as comet C/2020 F3, as well as other comets.
“Atomic sodium responds to sunlight in a similar way to cometary dust, but its momentum kick comes from a very particular wavelength of yellow light – the same color seen in sodium vapor street lamps,” Planetary Science Institute senior scientist Jeffrey Morgenthaler said in a statement.
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The atomic sodium, like the dust, gets impacted by sunlight, which means that humans can see it, researchers said.
“Thanks to acceleration by intense sunlight, the sodium tail takes on a different shape than the tail seen in off-band filtered images, which are dominated by reflected light from dust. In comparison, the sodium tail is narrower, longer and points directly away from the sun,” Boston University research scientist Carl Schmidt added.
Comets, and their tails, are comprised of dust, gas and plasma, with nearly all known comets having two tails, one comprised of dust and the other comprised of ions.
Images released from NASA earlier this week suggested that NEOWISE may actually have two ion tails.
Other recent comets with sodium tails include the Hale-Bopp comet in 1997 and the ISON Comet, which fell apart after it rounded the sun in 2013, Space.com reported.
The comet was discovered on March 27 by NASA’s NEOWISE (Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer) space telescope.
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NEOWISE has been visible to the naked eye, NASA said on its website.
“Through about the middle of the month, the comet is visible around 10 degrees above the northeastern horizon (the width of your outstretched fist) in the hour before dawn,” the space agency added. “From mid-July on, it’s best viewed as an evening object, rising increasingly higher above the northwestern horizon.”
NASA notes the comet’s closest approach to Earth will be on July 22, at a distance of about 64 million miles.
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