The telescope that first observed the NEOWISE comet now seen soaring and sizzling above the earth was built at the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan back in 2009. It was made for NASA’s mission originally called WISE to survey deep space from low earth orbit.
Equipped with infrared cameras, the telescope snapped a picture every 11 seconds and recorded upwards of 10 billion objects, including the most luminous galaxy in the universe, over a million black holes, and the two coldest brown dwarfs, also known as failed stars, ever found.
The mission was successful but WISE was getting too hot from taking all those photos so NASA programmed it to hibernate. A couple of years later, NASA was able to wake it up for its new mission, NEOWISE, to find near-earth asteroids and comets.
“I don’t think anyone here or at NASA ever expected this little telescope would be working ten and a half years later. It’s blown my mind!” said Pedro Sevilla, the project manager for NEOWISE at Space Dynamics Lab.
He said the NEOWISE comet is essentially made up of dust and ice and was expected to break apart as it went around the sun. Instead, it stayed intact and just got brighter and brighter, capturing the world’s attention and surprising the NASA NEOWISE team.
“Everyone started going nuts with the comet,” Sevilla said. “I mean here we are talking about it.”
If you want to see the comet, he says your best bet is at night after 10:30. It’s not too high so he suggests holding your fist up to the northwest horizon until you spot it in the sky.
If you are not in the countryside, you may need binoculars to view the comet, which measures about three miles across. It will be closest to earth on July 22 when it’s 64 million miles away from earth.