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NASA's Parker Solar Probe snaps stunning view of comet Neowise

It's a tale of two (or three) tails.

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- 01:27

This NASA image from the Parker Solar Probe uses processed data to show comet Neowise's twin tails. 

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Guillermo Stenborg

Early risers on Earth have been snapping photos of Neowise, a rare comet that can be seen with the naked eye. NASA's Parker Solar Probe didn't have to set an alarm. The spacecraft was in the perfect spot to capture a Neowise portrait on July 5.

Parker's main mission is to study the sun, but traveling through space has its perks. "Parker Solar Probe's position in space gave the spacecraft an unmatched view of the comet's twin tails when it was particularly active just after its closest approach to the Sun, called perihelion," NASA said in a statement on Friday.

NASA released two versions of the image, one using processed data to highlight the details of the comet's tails, and one left unprocessed with a glow from the sun just out of frame to the left. 

The Parker Solar Probe's WISPR instrument captured this unprocessed view of comet Neowise with the sun out of the picture to the left.

NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Naval Research Lab/Parker Solar Probe/Brendan Gallagher

Parker's WISPR (Wide-field Imager for Parker Solar Probe) instrument is giving scientists a delightfully detailed look at the comet's twin tails. The larger tail is made of dust. The smaller, fainter tail above it is another story.

"The upper tail is the ion tail, which is made up of gases that have been ionized by losing electrons in the sun's intense light," said NASA. "These ionized gases are buffeted by the solar wind — the sun's constant outflow of magnetized material — creating the ion tail that extends directly away from the sun."

A close inspection of the ion tail shows it may actually be split into two ion tails, though researchers are still studying it to see if the comet actually has a trio of tails. 

For more on how you can spot the comet (full name "C/2020 F3 NEOWISE) for yourself, check out our Neowise viewing guide.