July 23, 2014
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Comet C/2013 UQ4 (Catalina) has been observed by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft just one day after passing through its closest approach to the sun. The comet glows brightly in infrared wavelengths, with a dust tail streaking more than 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) across the sky. Its spectacular activity is driven by the vaporization of ice that has been preserved from the time of planet formation 4.5 billion years ago.
“The tail forms a faint fan as the smaller dust particles are more easily pushed away from the sun by the radiation pressure of the sunlight,” said James Bauer, researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
C/2013 UQ4 takes more than 450 years to orbit the sun once and spends most of its time far away at very low temperatures. Its orbit is also retrograde, which means that the comet moves around the sun in the opposite direction to the planets and asteroids.
The comet was originally thought to be an asteroid, as it appeared inactive when discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey on October 23, 2013. NEOWISE also observed the comet to be inactive on New Year’s Eve, 2013, but since then the comet has become highly active, allowing astronomers around the world to observe it. The comet’s activity should decline as it once again returns to the cold recesses of space.
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NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The mission’s principal investigator, Edward L. (Ned) Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected in 2002 under NASA’s Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory, Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp, Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing will take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
What is NEOWISE?
The NEOWISE project is the asteroid-hunting portion of the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. Funded by NASA’s Planetary Science Division, NEOWISE harvests measurements of asteroids and comets from the WISE images and provides a rich archive for searching WISE data for solar system objects.
WISE was launched in December 2009, and surveyed the full sky in four infrared wavelength bands (3.4, 4.6, 12 and 22 μm) until the frozen hydrogen cooling the telescope was depleted in September 2010. The survey continued as NEOWISE for an additional four months using the two shortest wavelength detectors. The spacecraft was placed into hibernation in February 2011, after completing its search of the inner solar system.
During its primary mission, NEOWISE delivered infrared detections of more than 158,000 minor planets to the scientific community, including more than 34,000 new discoveries. NEOWISE data have been used to set limits on the numbers, orbits, sizes, and probable compositions of asteroids throughout our solar system, and enabled the discovery of the first known Earth Trojan asteroid.
NEOWISE has been brought out of hibernation to learn more about the population of near-Earth objects and comets that could pose an impact hazard to the Earth. During its planned three-year survey in the 3.4 and 4.6 μm infrared bands, NEOWISE will rapidly characterize near-Earth objects (NEOs) and obtain accurate measurements of their diameters and albedos (how much light an object reflects). NEOWISE is equally sensitive to both light-colored asteroids and the optically dark objects that are difficult for ground-based observers to discover and characterize.
NEOWISE observations resumed in December 2013. Just six days after the survey start, NEOWISE discovered its first potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid, 2013 YP139.
The WISE mission’s education and public outreach office is based at the University of California, Berkeley.
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