Astronauts on board the International Space Station (ISS, in English) captured this Saturday (4) the moment when a comet gave a light show above the Earth’s atmosphere.
Called NEOWISE – or C / 2020 F3 -, the comet first appeared in March this year, but it was not yet so visible in the sky. At the time, astronauts did not know that this would change, however, as time went by, the brightness of the comet grew more and more intense, to the point of overshadowing the light of two other more recent comets.
Bob Behnken, one of NASA’s astronauts sent to space aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, tweeted the photos he took last Saturday (4). “Last night’s fireworks, really,” wrote Behnken, in reference to the fireworks festival that filled the United States sky the same day, in celebration of the country’s independence.
Last night’s fireworks, for real. Because Science. #NEOWISE #comet pic.twitter.com/IKcJ1wLFAl
– Bob Behnken (@AstroBehnken) July 5, 2020
In addition to Behnken, Russian astronaut Ivan Vagner, one of his colleagues on the ISS, also photographed the comet traveling over the Earth’s blue atmosphere. Vagner commented particularly on the part that draws the most attention in NEOWISE: its extremely bright tail compared to the trail left by its rocky cousins, the asteroids.
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– Ivan Vagner (@ ivan_mks63) July 5, 2020
As comets are formed by ice, the brightness tends to be more intense than in asteroids, since the ice melts and turns into gas while traveling through the sky at hundreds of thousands of kilometers per hour.
At the moment, at least one binocular is needed to observe NEOWISE in the sky. Astronauts still don’t know if the comet will look as bright as seen from Earth as seen from the ISS.
The best time for observation should be July 22, when NEOWISE will make its closest approach to Earth. It may be that on this day the comet and its shiny tail are visible to the naked eye.
Behnken and Vagner will stay on the ISS long enough to witness this approach seen from space, as Behnken and Doug Hurley, their fellow Crew Dragon, will return to Earth in early August and Vagner will remain in orbit until October.