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Telescope That Discovered NEOWISE Comet Developed At USU

Just before sunrise on Friday, July 10, 2020, Space Dynamics Laboratory electro-optical engineering group lead James Champagne captured this image of Comet NEOWISE from the Deep Canyon Trailhead in Cache Valley, Utah. (Credit: James Champagne).

NORTH OGDEN, Utah – A space-based telescope built by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory discovered the Comet NEOWISE, which has been one of the summer’s greatest spectacles because it can be seen with the naked eye.

The comet was named after the USU spacecraft that discovered it in on March 27.

A news release from the university said Comet NEOWISE was created 4.6 billion years ago. Once it disappears in the night sky, it will not be visible from earth for another 6,800 years.

It is visible by the naked eye in Utah, and the view will only get better in the coming days. Next week, on July 22, NEOWISE will be its closest to earth at a mere-64 million miles away.

The comet has been visible along the Wasatch Front just before dawn, due to surrounding mountains. The release said about an hour after sunset, the comet can be observed near the northwestern horizon. As the month progresses, it will rise higher in the sky, moving from the constellation Lynx toward the Big Dipper.

NEOWISE’s History 

In 2009, NASA’s Wide‐field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, was launched into space. SDL manufactured the state‐of‐the‐art telescope for NASA to map and catalog the sky with far better sensitivity and resolution than previous space‐based infrared survey telescopes.

In this 2009 photograph, Space Dynamics Laboratory engineers prepare the Wide‐field Infrared Survey Explorer telescope at SDL’s North Logan facility for shipment and launch. Following its successful first mission, WISE was renamed Near-Earth Object WISE, or NEOWISE. (Credit: Space Dynamics Laboratory)

SDL designed WISE to detect heat given off by objects in space ranging in temperature from minus 330 degrees Fahrenheit to 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Because WISE was designed to look for objects cooler than human eyes can observe, the telescope was built to detect infrared light. The mission also required that the telescope remain cooler than the objects it was photographing—an engineering challenge of galactic proportions.

Following its initial mission success, the spacecraft was put into on-orbit hibernation in Feb. 2011. In Sept. 2013, NASA woke up the sleeping spacecraft to assist with the agency’s efforts to identify and characterize the population of near-Earth objects. NASA renamed the spacecraft Near-Earth Object WISE, known as NEOWISE, and it began hunting the universe for comets and asteroids close to Earth’s orbit.

“The discovery of Comet NEOWISE is an exceptional example of the success of the NEOWISE mission. The opportunity to view a newly discovered object in space with the naked eye is extraordinary,” said Pedro Sevilla, SDL’s NEOWISE program manager and payload operations lead. “For decades, SDL has worked with NASA to help reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind, and we are honored to be a part of this important mission.”

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