By Ed Albin
Program Director, Space Studies, American Military University
On March 27, 2020, NASA scientists saw a beautiful new comet: Comet NEOWISE. The comet is named for the Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer — a NASA space telescope that discovered the comet. Just visible to the naked eye, NEOWISE has the distinction of being the brightest comet visible from the Northern Hemisphere since Hale-Bopp in 1997.
This wonderful comet is close to three miles in diameter and orbits our Sun in a period of 6,800 years. It was at its closest to the Earth on July 23, when it passed within 64,000,000 miles of our planet.
Get started on your Space Studies Degree at American Military University.
Like all comets, NEOWISE is a celestial dirty snowball. It has a stunning green-gaseous coma with a long yellow-orange tail trailing behind it. The dusty tail points away from the Sun due to the push of solar radiation. As a comet approaches the Sun, the heat from our star melts the frozen visitor in a process called sublimation, where its ices melt from a solid to a gas without going through a liquid phase. When a comet passes around the Sun, it’s a great opportunity to study it with both NASA spacecraft and Earth-bound telescopes.
How Our Telescope Is Used to Teach Space Studies Students
Recently, we took our own image of Comet NEOWISE from Charles Town, West Virginia, with our observatory’s telescope. The telescope’s digital camera captured the comet on the evening of July 24, 2020.
The telescope we used to acquire the image of Comet NEOWISE has a light-collecting mirror 24 inches in diameter. This telescope is an important tool for online instruction/research in the University’s Space Studies program.
For instance, graduate-level students work with space studies faculty members to collect original astronomical data for their own research and thesis projects. Undergraduate students assist in analyzing this data and acquire hands-on observational experience. Examples of ongoing investigations with the telescope include observations of exoplanet transits, supernova searches and variable star photometry. Such studies not only serve to train future researchers but add to humanity’s astronomical knowledge base. The APUS telescope is a window for peering into the mysteries of the cosmos in which we live.
About the Author
Dr. Ed Albin is an Associate Professor and Program Director of Space Studies in the School of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) at American Military University. His academic credentials include a Ph.D. in Planetary Geology from the University of Georgia, an M.S. in Geology from Arizona State University and a B.S. in Earth Science from Columbus State University. Ed has also held positions as an assistant professor, a planetarium lecturer, a commercial helicopter pilot and a planetary geologist.