NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has snapped a close-up image of a celestial celebrity. The image was taken on August 8 and shows a very close view of the Neowise comet. NASA’s picture shows the hazy shell of gas and dust that surrounds the comet’s nucleus as it’s heated by the sun.
The space agency points out that this is the first time Hubble has taken a photo of a comet of Neowise’s brightness at such a high resolution after a near pass by the sun. Hubble snapped the photograph after the comet made its closest approach to the sun on July 3, 2020. It passed at a distance of 27 million miles to the sun.
Typically, comets break apart due to thermal and gravitational stresses with such close encounters to the sun. The image taken by Hubble shows that the nucleus appears to be intact. NASA chose to use Hubble to take the photograph of Neowise because it offered resolution far better than any other telescope could provide. High resolution is key to seeing details very close to the nucleus.
Researcher Qicheng Zhang from Caltech said that high resolution is critical for seeing details very close to the nucleus. The image allowed scientists to see changes in the dust right after it stripped away from the nucleus due to solar heat. Despite the high-resolution the Hubble image was able to provide, we are still unable to see the comet’s nucleus due to its small size. Scientists estimate that the ball of ice that makes the nucleus of Neowise may be no more than three miles across.
The vast cloud of gas and dust coming from the comet measures about 11,000 miles across in the photo Hubble snapped. The photo does show a pair of jets emanating from the nucleus of the comet shooting out in opposite directions. Those jets are the result of ice sublimating beneath the surface resulting in dust and gas being squeezed out at high velocities.