Comet Neowise dazzles in 4K movie made of astronaut time-lapse photos

  • NASA astronauts living on board the International Space Station recently witnessed Comet Neowise rising above the limb of Earth.
  • The astronauts photographed what they saw on July 5 in a time-lapse series of photographs.
  • A UK graphic artist then downloaded all of the images, edited them into real-time 4K movie, and released the 7-minute video on YouTube.
  • Comet Neowise is on its way out of the solar system and won’t return for about 6,800 years, but it will be highly visible about 80 minutes after sunset from July 14-19.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the darkness of orbital night on July 5, a NASA astronaut floated up to a window on the International Space Station, gazed toward the limb of Earth, and patiently waited for a cosmic spectacle.

As the space station careened over the Middle East, the recently discovered Comet Neowise and its twin glowing tails rose above the pre-dawn horizon. Then — almost as quickly as the dust-and-gas-sputtering space rock appeared — it faded into the blinding glare of the sun.

“Right before the sun came up, that comet became visible during that short period of time when it was still close to the sun, but the sun was still hidden by the Earth,” NASA astronaut Bob Behnken, who recently launched to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon spaceship, told The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast from orbit on July 7. “It was just an awesome sight to be able to see”

Fortunately for us all, we don’t have to risk our lives rocketing to space to see such a scene, or even imagine it: Behnken and his colleagues recorded thousands of photographs, which the UK-based graphic artist Seán Doran (who regularly processes space agency imagery) downloaded from a NASA image archive and then edited into a breathtaking time-lapse movie.

“Grab a cold beverage, turn off the lights, get undressed, get comfortable and pop this on the big TV,” Doran tweeted on July 9 with a short cut of the video, adding: “Consume whilst drinking.”

Although Doran initially shared a version of the video sped up four times, he later uploaded an ultra-high-definition 4K video to his YouTube channel that shows the sequence in real-time.

This real-time playback gives viewers of the 7-minute film (below) a sense of what it’s like to be onboard the space station while flying 250 miles above Earth at a speed of 17,500 mph and see a comet rise.

Look now, Comet Neowise won’t be back for millennia

Scientists operating a NASA telescope called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, discovered the comet on March 27. Formally known as C/2020 F3, the comet is named Comet Neowise after the telescope’s new mission to find potentially threatening near-Earth objects, or NEOs.

On July 3, Comet Neowise swung by the sun about 10 million miles closer than Mercury’s orbit. Along the way, the 3 mile (5 kilometer) ice ball heated up enough to spray out two tails, one made of gas and the other dust, that stretch millions of miles into space.

The comet is expected to make its closest approach to Earth on July 23, when it’s about 64 million miles away, according to calculations by NASA JPL. Astronomers expect it to be visible to the naked eye on a dark night through early August.

comet neowise horizon bird power lines GettyImages 1226598506

A stork stands on a power lines pillar as the comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is seen in the sky above the village of Kreva, some 100 km northwest of Minsk, early on July 13, 2020.

Sergei Gapon/AFP via Getty Images

But Comet Neowise isn’t sticking around, nor will it make a return within our lifetimes: The object is zooming toward the outer fringes of our solar system, and it won’t return to the inner solar system for about 6,768 years.

To see the comet yourself, wake up before dawn and look toward the sky close to the horizon. From July 14-19, though, reports the comet will have its best “prime-time” viewing hours in the evening about 80 minutes after sunset.

On Monday, several amateur astronomers reported the comet as possibly fragmenting, or breaking up, which is not unusual for a rock that’s held together by frozen gasses, dust, and grit. However, researchers contacted by Business Insider debunked that idea, saying telescope mount or photography mistakes led to what looks like (but is not) a fragmenting comet.

“I have seen a picture taken a few hours ago … and the comet looks healthy,” Quanzhi Ye, an astronomer at the University of Maryland, told Business Insider in an email on Monday. “So no, no clear evidence that the comet is fragmenting, as far as I know.”

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