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Watch A Comet Photobomb The NASA Planet Hunter’s Test Images

Aug 08, 2018 07:44 AM EDT
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Comet C/2018 N1 was captured by TESS as it undergoes a testing period before embarking on the planet hunt.
(Photo : NASA Goddard | YouTube)

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite unwittingly captured a photobomber in a set of test images: comet C/2018 N1 streaking in and out of the frame.

TESS began science operations last Wednesday, July 25. As it scours the cosmos for signs of alien planets, it is able to get snapshots of other cosmic bodies in distant space as well.

Comet In Flight Steals The Show

The images of the wayward comet were collected by TESS in a span of 17 hours just before the planet hunter kicked off its operations. Astronomers stitched together the images to create a video that illustrates the flight pattern of the comet.

Comet C/2018 N1 was discovered by the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer satellite last June 2018, according to NASA. It currently lies roughly 29 million miles (48 million kilometers) from Earth, in a section of the constellation Piscis Austrinus.

Amazingly, the video from NASA was detailed enough to spot the comet's tail trailing the space rock as it journeys across the skies.

Other Cosmic Activities On The Clip

While the comet is undoubtedly the star of the recently released video, the swath of space that was captured also showcased other interesting astronomical activity.

Most notably are two variable stars that flicker throughout the 1.5-minute video. As Space.com explains, these brightening and dimming behavior is caused by stellar mechanics, not by planets orbiting the star.

Mars lies out of the video frame, but it makes its presence known with a faint beam of light visible. This is reportedly reflected off the Red Planet, possibly due to Mars' exceptional brightness as it was in opposition.

Astronomers were also able to glimpse a group of asteroids zipping in the distance, only visible in the sped-up boomerang clip at the end of the video.

More About TESS

The images prove that TESS is ready to collect a series of clear, stable images of a broad expanse of space periodically. This ability is critical in the search for alien planets, which is the primary goal of NASA's advanced satellite.

TESS will spend two years tracking the nearest, brightest stars in hopes of catching transits or periodic dips in the star's light. Transits are indicative of a planet orbiting the star, causing a temporary flicker in the brightness.

The planet hunter will be sending data back to Earth once per orbit, which is every 13.5 days.

"I'm thrilled that our new planet hunter mission is ready to start scouring our solar system's neighborhood for new worlds," Paul Hertz, director of the NASA Astrophysics division, says in a statement following the start of TESS' operations. "Now that we know there are more planets than stars in our universe, I look forward to the strange, fantastic worlds we're bound to discover."

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