Comet NEOWISE – a glowing ball of space ice with two colourful tails – has starred in countless photos as it streaks through the skies across the Northern Hemisphere this week. On Tuesday, three cosmic co-stars joined it, making for an astonishing spectacle.
The image above shows a split-second meteor streaking across the sky, the green aurora shimmering over Comet NEOWISE, and purple ribbons dancing in a mysterious atmospheric phenomenon called Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enhancement (STEVE).
The shot was one of nearly 600 that photographer and farmer Donna Lach snapped on Tuesday night near her farm in Manitoba, Canada. Lach volunteers for a citizen science project called Aurorasaurus, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, which first discovered STEVE in 2016.
The aurora appears when charged particles from the Sun interact with oxygen and nitrogen in Earth's atmosphere, but STEVE's origins are still a mystery.
From Lach's vantage point, both sets of colourful lights lined up perfectly with the fleeting appearance of a meteor – a space rock vaporizing in Earth's atmosphere – all while Comet NEOWISE hung bright near the horizon.
The comet is expected to get closest to our planet on July 23, approaching within about 64 million miles. But the next few nights – through Sunday – may provide the best opportunity to spot it in the sky. After it rockets away again, NEOWISE won't return to the inner Solar System for 6,768 years.
Lach said she initially set out to capture the comet against the aurora borealis.
"The reports had been forecasting aurora for a couple of days so I was going to be ready to catch both," she told Business Insider. She wasn't expecting STEVE or the meteor.
She applied "a good layer of DEET," she said, and then "stood there swatting mosquitoes forever until it finally got dark."
By 11:30 pm local time, the comet was high above the horizon and the aurora was glittering across half the sky. An hour and a half later, the vertical stripes of STEVE appeared – far from the comet, but not too far for her camera's wide-angle lens.
"I was thrilled to see I could catch the span from STEVE to NEOWISE," Lach said. "I couldn't believe it when I caught the long meteor in one frame. I just stood smiling and saying 'wow' to myself and the critters in the ditch."
Lach added that the glittering display gave her "an epic night that I will never forget."
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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