Explanation: Where do comet tails come from? There are no obvious places on the nuclei of comets from which the jets that create comet tails emanate. One of the best images of emerging jets is shown in the featured picture, taken in 2015 by ESA’s robotic Rosetta spacecraft that orbited Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Comet CG) from 2014 to 2016. The picture shows plumes of gas and dust escaping numerous places from Comet CG‘s nucleus as it neared the Sun and heated up. The comet has two prominent lobes, the larger one spanning about 4 kilometers, and a smaller 2.5-kilometer lobe connected by a narrow neck. Analyses indicate that evaporation must be taking place well inside the comet’s surface to create the jets of dust and ice that we see emitted through the surface. Comet CG (also known as Comet 67P) loses in jets about a meter of radius during each of its 6.44-year orbits around the Sun, a rate at which will completely destroy the comet in only thousands of years. In 2016, Rosetta‘s mission ended with a controlled impact onto Comet CG’s surface.
Explanation: Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) is now sweeping through northern skies. Its developing tails stretch some six degrees across this telescopic field of view, recorded from Brno, Czech Republic before daybreak on July 10. Pushed out by the pressure of sunlight itself, the comet’s broad, yellowish dust tail is easiest to see. But the image also captures a fainter, more bluish tail too, separate from the reflective comet dust. The fainter tail is an ion tail, formed as ions from the cometary coma are dragged outward by magnetic fields in the solar wind and fluoresce in the sunlight. In this sharp portrait of our new visitor from the outer Solar System, the tails of comet NEOWISE are reminiscent of the even brighter tails of Hale Bopp, the Great Comet of 1997.
Comet NEOWISE from the ISS Image Credit: NASA, ISS
Explanation: Rounding the Sun on July 3rd and currently headed for the outer Solar System, Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) has been growing brighter in the predawn skies of planet Earth. From low Earth orbit it also rises before the Sun, captured above the approaching glow along the eastern horizon in this snapshot from the International Space Station on July 5. Venus, now Earth’s morning star is the brilliant celestial beacon on the right in the field of view. Above Venus you can spot the sister stars of the more compact Pleiades cluster. Earthbound skygazers can spot this comet with the unaided eye, but should look for awesome views with binoculars.
Explanation: These silvery blue waves washing over a tree-lined horizon in the eastern French Alps are noctilucent clouds. From high in planet Earth’s mesosphere, they reflect sunlight in this predawn skyscape taken on July 8. This summer, the night-shining clouds are not new to the northern high-latitudes. Comet NEOWISE is though. Also known as C/2020 F3, the comet was discovered in March by the Earth-orbiting Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite. It’s now emerging in morning twilight only just visible to the unaided eye from a clear location above the northeastern horizon.
Explanation: Why would clouds form a hexagon on Saturn? Nobody is sure. Originally discovered during the Voyager flybys of Saturn in the 1980s, nobody has ever seen anything like it anywhere else in the Solar System. Acquiring its first sunlit views of far northern Saturn in late 2012, the Cassini spacecraft’s wide-angle camera recorded this stunning, false-color image of the ringed planet’s north pole. The composite of near-infrared image data results in red hues for low clouds and green for high ones, giving the Saturnian cloudscape a vivid appearance. This and similar images show the stability of the hexagon even 20+ years after Voyager. Movies of Saturn’s North Pole show the cloud structure maintaining its hexagonal structure while rotating. Unlike individual clouds appearing like a hexagon on Earth, the Saturn cloud pattern appears to have six well defined sides of nearly equal length. Four Earths could fit inside the hexagon. Beyond the cloud tops at the upper right, arcs of the planet’s eye-catching rings appear bright blue.
Explanation: A sensitive video camera on a summit of the Vosges mountains in France captured these surprising fireworks above a distant horizon on June 26. Generated over intense thunderstorms, this one about 260 kilometers away, the brief and mysterious flashes have come to be known as red sprites. The transient luminous events are caused by electrical breakdown at altitudes of 50 to 100 kilometers. That puts them in the mesophere, the coldest layer of planet Earth’s atmosphere. The glow beneath the sprites is from more familiar lighting though, below the storm clouds. But on the right, the video frames have captured another summertime apparition from the mesophere. The silvery veins of light are polar mesospheric clouds. Also known as noctilucent or night shining clouds, the icy clouds still reflect the sunlight when the Sun is below the horizon.