This picture, assembled from data from the WISPR instrument on the Parker Solar Probe, shows the twin tails of Comet NEOWISE as seen on 5 July, 2020. The lower, broader tail is the comet’s dust tail, while the thinner, upper tail is the comet’s ion tail.
The dust tail is created by dust lifting off the surface of the comet’s nucleus, and it trails behind the comet in its orbit. The ion tail is made up of gases that have been ionized by stripped of electrons by the Sun’s intense light. These ionized gases are buffeted by the solar wind, the Sun’s constant outflow of magnetized material, forcing the ion tail to extend directly away from the Sun. The Sun is out of the image to the left.
Image Credits: NASA / JHUAPL / NRL / Parker Solar Probe / Guillermo Stenborg
The Parker Solar Probe is alive and well after skimming by the Sun at just 25 million km from the Sun’s surface. At its perihelion on 5 November, the spacecraft reached a top speed of almost 343,000 km/h, setting a new record for spacecraft speed. On subsequent orbits the spacecraft will repeatedly break its own speed record as it draws closer to the Sun and the its speed increases at perihelion.
Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab received the status beacon from the spacecraft at 21:46 UTC on the 7th indicating that the Probe is operating well with all instruments running and collecting science data and, if there were any minor issues, they were resolved autonomously by the spacecraft.
At perihelion the intense sunlight heated the Sun-facing side of the spacecraft’s Thermal Protection System to almost 450 C, hot enough to melt solder, but the spacecraft instruments and systems protected by the heat shield were generally kept in the around 25 C, a comfortable shirt-sleeve temperature. On the closet approach, the thermal shield will be exposed to a temperature around 1400 C.
It will be several weeks after the end of the solar encounter phase before the science data begins downlinking to Earth.
Video Credits: NASA / JHUAPL
The Parker Solar Probe is inbound for its rendezvous with the Sun. On 25 September, it took a look back at the Earth with its wide-field image and snapped this picture. The bulge on the right isn’t part of the Earth. It’s the Moon.
Image Credit: NASA