NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer: Asteroid Hunters Spot Two Comets, Near-Earth Objects

It’s not quite 2017 and amateur astronomers are in for a treat.

Reportedly, as a new year approaches, so will a pair of near-Earth objects (NEOs). Researchers at Caltech said NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer Reactivation Mission (or NEOWISE) discovered two celestial bodies orbiting the planet at a comfortable distance last month.

The comet and asteroid-hunting division of NASA detected what they called 2016 WF9 and C/2016 U1 NEOWISE. The latter is the larger of the two space objects. It has a diameter between 0.3 to 0.6 miles and has low reflective qualities.

Scientists are not quite sure it is a comet; it lacks the telltale signs of a comet: contrails of dust particles as it zooms across the sun. Dr. James “Gerbs” Bauer works with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and is the project’s Deputy Principal Investigator.

He believes 2016 WF9 can’t be ruled out as a comet and there is likely a logical explanation for its “dark” presentation.

“This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that lingers on or just under its surface.”

On the other hand, the other near-Earth object discovered by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer has all the characteristics of a comet’s signature, as Dr. Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains.

“C/2016 U1 NEOWISE has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable.”

As Sci News wrote, WISE observed the two comets rotating on a predictable path around the sun. At their farthest distance in the Solar System, the space rocks encounter Jupiter.

Data suggests that in nearly five Earth-years, the larger comet traverses toward the inside and underneath the primary asteroid belt and Mars’ travel trajectory. It then turns towards Earth’s orbit before journeying back again into the outer reaches of the Solar System.

NASA says there are two possible explanations for the existence of the near-Earth objects. One theory suggests the bodies are true comets. The other has to do with the straying of objects from time to time away from the volatile environment of the asteroid belt.

On Thursday, the Inquisitr reported another update for space enthusiasts. Not to be confused with the two comets discovered by the WISE program, according to the space agency, another celestial body is flying by Earth on New Year’s Day 2017.

“NASA is reporting that on New Year’s Eve, comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova is going to be visible from locations in the Northern Hemisphere, including New York City and London. However, unlike Halley’s comet, Hale-Bopp, and PanSTARRS, which were each visible with the naked eye, this year’s New Year’s comet is expected only to be visible with binoculars or telescopes.”

Sorry end of days prognosticators; it’s not the time to prepare for doomsday. However, according to the Guardian in the tweet below, the chances are good that an asteroid will make a deep impact on Earth in the future.

Here is what NASA knows about the routes the recently discovered comets could take. As for 2016 WF9, it will fly by Earth on or about Feb. 25, 2017, at a distance of some 32 million miles.

Experts say 2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on Feb. 25, 2017. At a distance of nearly 32 million miles (51 million km) from our planet, this encounter will not bring it particularly close.

The smaller rock arrives earlier. It’s unclear how close it will come to Earth, but those in the northern hemisphere will have a chance to gaze at it just before dawn in the southeastern sky. From there, it heads towards the sun and will orbit far out in the Solar System for about 1,000 years before it makes its way back.

Its trajectory is well understood, and the object is not a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future. Let’s just hope NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer Reactivation Mission didn’t err in its data collection.

[Featured Image by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images]