Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was first detected on March 27, 2020, by NASA's Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope. It was the brightest cometary visitor to our skies since Comet McNaught in 2007. It is shown in the evening sky twenty days past perihelion.
This image shows the two distinct types of tails that comets often exhibit as they approach the sun.
The blue tail is the ion tail. It is formed when molecules sublimated from the comet's nucleus are ionized by the sun's UV radiation causing them to glow blue. The solar magnetic field sweeps the blue ions into a straight tail that always points away from the sun.
The broad, gray tail--the dust tail--is composed of particles swept away with the material sublimated from the nucleus. Unlike the ion tail, the dust tail does not emit its own light, it instead shines by reflected sunlight. It is also not affected by the solar magnetic field, which confines the ion tail to a straight, narrow path directly away from the sun. In addition to assuming a wider, often fan shape, dust tails of some major comets formed graceful curved shapes and displayed intricate banding.
Artwork depictions of the variety of beautiful shapes of historic comets can be seen in the "Astronomy and Space Exploration" collection in this gallery. "Donati's Comet and the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral" depicts the Great Comet of 1858's graceful curved and banded tail and its two straight ion tails. "Night Watch" shows the more recent (2007) Comet McNaught's spectacular, intricately banded tail.
Photo and notes Copyright J. Hervat
NOTE: The Fine Art America watermark in the lower right does not appear on the print.
January 25th, 2021
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