LAS VEGAS (KSNV) — The NEOWISE comet is giving a lot of families around the Las Vegas valley an opportunity to get outside at night.
According to Keith Caceras, President of the Las Vegas Astronomical Society, it will be at its closest point to earth on Thursday evening.
"In two days it will be at its closest point, so right now the comet is leaving the sun and approaching a flyby of earth’s orbit," Caceras said. "So, at 6:14 p.m. on the 23rd of July, at its closest point of 64,000,000 miles."
Caceras says the comet's arrival is bittersweet since his organization would typically be holding viewing events at parks around town.
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Unfortunately, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those events will be scratched into the foreseeable future.
"Ordinarily, we would love to show this to people," Caceras said. "Usually we have monthly events at federal and state parks around the valley like Red Rock." Caceras added, "We can’t do that right now. Our events usually have hundreds of people, and we can’t bring that many people together in there, so we’ve been trying to convert things online and share things from our backyard. Show pictures in our Facebook group."
Comets are typically named after the people or instruments used to discover them. In this case, Caceras says the comet, currently visible with the naked eye, is named for a NASA space telescope that spotted it for the first time only a few months ago. "It stands for Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer."
In the scheme of the greater universe, NEOWISE will be very close to the earth, but poses no threat. "Comets do, from time to time, collide as do asteroids," said UNLV physics professor Michael Pravica, "But actually, if it did come towards earth, most of it would actually evaporate- vaporize in the atmosphere." That's because Pravica says comets are massive dirty snowballs in space.
"Essentially, it’s got dust. It’s got little rocks, and because it’s cold in the outer reaches of space, it’s got condensed things like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and water," said Pravica. "The sun actually produces oxygen and that’s kind of the highest element it produces. Of course, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, so in fact, it’s natural that it (hydrogen & oxygen) would combine under the billions of years of stellar evolution."
Pravica says NEOWISE's recent discovery also shows us how much we still have to learn about the universe in which we live. "It shows us that the universe is incredibly dynamic, that there are always these things coming and going, and the fact that it’s orbiting our solar system, our Sun," he said. "And, it’s something we have not discovered demonstrates that even still, we don’t fully know everything about our solar system and beyond, and I think it’s really cool."