On July 3, Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE made its closest approach to our sun on its nearly 7,000-year circuit around the solar system. During this month, the bright tail put off by the 3-mile wide ball of ice and rock became a spectacular sight in the dawn sky.
Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, amateur and professional astronomers as well as general members of the public have spent much of the month capturing incredible images of Comet NEOWISE as it streaks back out of the inner solar system. Scientists at NASA have said that this comet is one of the brightest this century, although not reaching the level of the 1997 Hale-Bopp comet.
The currently visible comet was originally discovered by NASA's NEOWISE Mission in March. The WISE infrared space-telescope ended its original mission in 2010 and has since been used to spot asteroids and comets in the solar system.
Around July 11, the comet began to appear in the evening sky, and on the 22nd it reached its closest point to Earth.
In case anyone has not had the chance to see it yet, the comet is expected to remain visible into August underneath the Big Dipper portion of the constellation Ursa Major. The level of light pollution in an area will make a large difference in how much of the comet and its tail can be seen, so getting away from city lights is helpful. Experts suggest viewers use binoculars in order to get the best look.
This comet is not the only object in the solar system that has gotten closer to Earth this July. Mars recently reached an important position in its orbit around the sun that allows for more rapid transits for probes heading out to the Red Planet. Scientists and engineers around the world have been working for years to prepare spacecraft to make this window, knowing that the next one isn’t available until 2022.
On July 20, a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries H-IIA rocket roared to life from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, carrying the Al Amal spacecraft. Al Amal (Arabic for hope) from the United Arab Emirates is the first interplanetary probe launched by a nation in the Arab world.
The car-size spacecraft was built for the UAE Space Agency, which received help from experts at several U.S. universities, including the University of Colorado at Boulder, the University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University. Once the craft reaches Mars, it will work to study the planet’s climate and atmosphere.
Experts from the UAE hope that the mission will provide a hopeful look to the future for youths in the Middle Eastern nation.
Next to launch will likely be NASA's Perseverance Rover, which is set to launch sometime from July 30 to Aug. 15. It carries numerous experiments destined for the surface of Mars, where it will seek signs of possible ancient life and prepare samples of Martian rock and soil for a potential return to Earth. It also carries several other devices and experiments, including the Ingenuity helicopter, a tech demonstration meant to be the first man-made aircraft to fly on another planet.
The mission is set to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida aboard an Atlas V-541 rocket. The rocket was built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
The final mission being planned for Mars during this current window is another national first. China hopes to join the UAE with its first Mars mission, named Tianwen-1. This is not China’s first attempt at a Mars launch, however, as that nation also had a 2011 collaboration with Russia that was unsuccessful.
China's upcoming mission has much in common with the ones from the U.S. and the UAE, as the Chinese craft is will carry both a rover bound for the surface of Mars as well as a probe that will stay in orbit. This launch will involve the most powerful rocket available to the China National Space Administration: the Long March-5. The rocket has already reached the pad at the Wenchang Space Launch Center.
July has been a very active month for space news, and many of the events that started this month will continue well into the future. For the comet, it will eventually get farther from the sun, lose its tail, and disappear from our view. For the spacecrafts that are heading to Mars, they face a many-months trip to their destination before arriving in early 2021.
• Justin Klingele is a 2020 graduate of Riverside Christian School.