‘Australian’ comet captured by NASA

By Kate Evans

A spectacular image of a comet found from an Australian observatory is among the first pictures to be captured by NASA's new satellite telescope, MiNDFOOD reports.

The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has been scanning the sky since January 14, beaming back more than 250,000 infrared images in the few weeks since then.

One of those images depicts Comet Siding Spring.

In 2007, Australian National University (ANU) astronomer Donna Burton became the first Australian woman to discover a comet, naming it “Siding Spring” after the NSW observatory where she worked.

She says the NASA image is much more detailed than what she has seen through her telescope.

“When I first saw it, it just looked like a very tiny little dot, that had moved across some images,” she said.

“It didn’t even have a tail in those days because it had not gone round the sun.

“The image [WISE] has got is incredible. The picture in that image has got a tail ten million miles long, which is sort of impressive.”

The dramatic ‘tail’ is formed from dust illuminated by the sun as the comet passes through the solar system.

Ms Burton says this particular comet was discovered while Siding Spring astronomers surveyed the sky for asteroids and other objects on a dangerous course for Earth.

“Both WISE and what we do is geared towards making sure we try and catalogue all the lumps of rock that are out there that have the potential to come near us,” she said.

“So if they find one that’s in close orbit and has a chance to hit us, they can go up there and do something about it.

“A comet’s a really exciting by-product.”

She says Comet Siding Spring was visible with binoculars until last month.

“At its closest, it came to within 111 million miles of Earth; only a little further away than the sun,” she said.

NASA has released four WISE images to the public.

Apart from Comet Siding Spring, they show a dense cluster of galaxies, a star-forming cloud, and a view of the Andromeda galaxy.

Ms Burton says the project has huge potential.

“I think it’s really cool that a space-based telescope is going out there and had a look at my comet,” she said.

“WISE is going to do a pile of amazing things being up there.

“Taking a picture of my comet’s sort of cool but it’s just one of the many things that it’s going to do.”

2010 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All Rights Reserved.



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