NORTH LOGAN, UTAH (ABC4 News) – The blazing Comet NEOWISE is the shooting star of our summer skies, but before you could just look up and see it, the streaking ball of ice was discovered by a Utah built telescope as it zipped around our galaxy on its millennial journey.

How was it discovered? Well it’s a bit of a story.

It all begins with Utah State University’s Space Dynamics laboratory, they built a telescope for NASA and the search was on!

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)

According a press release sent to ABC4 News by the Space Dynamics laboratory in Logan.

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.

USU’s 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 a galactic proportion.

The space-faring telescope did a great job on its initial mission, and by 2011 NASA put the tough telescope to sleep. What they call on-orbit hibernation.

In 2013 NASA woke up the telescope and gave it a new mission, to assist with the efforts to identify and characterize the population of near-Earth objects. NASA gave the telescope a new name, Near-Earth Object WISE, shortened to NEOWISE.

These images from ESA and NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory show comet NEOWISE as it approached the Sun in late June 2020. The instrument that produced this data is a coronagraph, which uses a solid disk to block out the Sun’s bright face, revealing the comparatively outer atmosphere, the corona, along with objects like comet NEOWISE.

The telescope started hunting the universe for comets and asteroids close to Earth’s orbit. It zeroed in on the Earth’s approaching visitor.

“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.”

The comet is named after the spacecraft that first spied the visitor, Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). It was discovered on March 27th 2020 in the far reaches of our solar system.

This is the picture of the discovery of the comet by the telescope made in Utah on March 27th 2020 The Comet is the red dots. This picture is courtesy NASA

The comet was created at the dawn of our Solar System 4.6 billion years ago and will start it’s long flight out past the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune to the distant horizons or the system in mid-August.

The next time the comet will be seen by humans is by our descendants 227 generations from now, if they are lucky. NEOWISE will not be seen in this part of the solar system for 6,800 years. The last time people on earth saw the comet, if they did at all, was when they were learning to make pottery in China, and this is the time they think man domesticated the pig.

The Sumerians were taking over and the ideas of writing (cuneiform) and mathematics (base 60) were taking hold. According to research, this was the time when the sailboat was invented and the wheel!

Now it’s providing stargazers. here on earth a spectacular light show. On July 22nd, Comet NEOWISE will make it’s the closest pass to Earth, 64 million miles away (103 million kilometers).

The press release says for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere Comet NEOWISE has been most visible at dawn and is now transitioning to the evening sky. 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.

Watch Utah’s Pinpoint Weather with Chief Meteorologist Alana Brophy, Meteorologists Erika Martin, and Adam Carroll for updates on when you can see NEOWISE in Utah’s skies.

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Tracy Smith
Tracy T. Smith is an award winning content producer/storyteller. He has a passionate interest in all things narrative and loves writing, photography, cinematography and visual storytelling.