NEOWISE spies its first comet

March 3, 2014 by Dc Agle
Comet NEOWISE was first observed by NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft on Valentine's Day, 2014.

( —NASA's Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) spacecraft has spotted a never-before-seen comet—its first such discovery since coming out of hibernation late last year.

"We are so pleased to have discovered this frozen visitor from the outermost reaches of our solar system," said Amy Mainzer, the mission's principal investigator from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This comet is a weirdo - it is in a , meaning that it orbits the sun in the opposite sense from Earth and the other planets."

Officially named "C/2014 C3 (NEOWISE)", the first comet discovery of the renewed mission came on Feb. 14 when the comet was about 143 million miles (230 million kilometers) from Earth. Although the comet's orbit is still a bit uncertain, it appears to have arrived from its most distant point in the region of the outer planets. The mission's sophisticated software picked out the moving object against a background of stationary stars. As NEOWISE circled Earth, scanning the sky, it observed the comet six times over half a day before the object moved out of its view. The discovery was confirmed by the Minor Planet Center, Cambridge, Mass., when follow-up observations were received three days later from the Near Earth Object Observation project Spacewatch, Tucson, Ariz. Other follow-up observations were then quickly received. While this is the first NEOWISE has discovered since coming out of hibernation, the is credited with the discovery of 21 other comets during its primary mission.

Originally called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), the spacecraft was shut down in 2011 after its primary mission was completed. In September 2013, it was reactivated, renamed NEOWISE and assigned a new mission to assist NASA's efforts to identify the population of potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. NEOWISE will also characterize previously known asteroids and comets to better understand their sizes and compositions.

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5 / 5 (1) Mar 04, 2014
This comet is a weirdo - it is in a retrograde orbit

That sure doesn't sound like a good idea. I wonder what the life expectancy of something in that kind of orbit might be? At some point in time it'll eventually be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that's for sure.

With apogee somewhere around the outer planets, it's not moving as fast as something falling in from the Ort Cloud or Kuiper Belt, but that retrograde orbit would make impact speed faster. Earth orbits the sun at almost 70,000 mph, which is faster than the speed of the average earth-crossing asteroid falling from the Kuiper belt (50-60,000?). That makes a collision with any retrograde object much more violent than a comparable collision with something crossing in a prograde direction.

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