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'A tale of two comets' — Webb telescope rocket plume & Comet Leonard on Christmas Day

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Matipon Tangmatitham via NASA

More by Dylan Smith

Photographed from Thailand after its Dec. 25 launch, the rocket that carried the James Webb Space Telescope shows off its plume next to the more distant Comet Leonard.

"These two comet-looking things have vastly different origins and destinations. One was created billions of years ago, is made of ice and destined to travel to the sun. Another isn't actually a comet; instead it is a man-made object only launched less than an hour ago and is destined to travel far away from the sun," photographer Matipon Tangmatitham wrote on Facebook in posting the picture.

"What both objects shared, however, is their destiny never to return to be seen again," Tangmatitham wrote. "The James Webb Space Telescope, however, is also destined to explore the universe and sending us unseen images of faraway galaxies and distant worlds for decades to come."

The image was chosen by NASA as its "Astronomy Picture of the Day" for Monday.

The Webb telescope will be used in part by researchers at the University of Arizona, investigating the brightest beacons in the universe, and probing the neighborhoods of massive black holes.

Their work may influence how we view the early universe, researchers said.

"Comet Leonard has recently passed its closest to both the Earth and Venus and will round the Sun next week," NASA said Monday of the photograph. "The comet, still visible to the unaided eye, has developed a long and changing tail in recent weeks. In contrast, the upper streak is the launch plume of the Ariane V rocket that lifted the James Webb Space Telescope off the Earth two days ago. The featured single-exposure image was taken from Thailand, and the foreground spire is atop a pagoda in Doi Inthanon National Park. JWST, NASA's largest and most powerful space telescope so far, will orbit the Sun near the Earth-Sun L2 point and is scheduled to start science observations in the summer of 2022."

Tangmatitham said on Facebook that "I've shot another Ariane 5 Launcher over Thailand before (https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140212.html). So when I heard Webb was launching at 19:20 local time, I planned to shoot the comet at this location in advance. I had hope to just see the two of them in the same night, but could not possibly hope they would line up in the same shot as there were simply too many variables for that to happen."

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"What you see is actually the exhaust plume and spent upper stage rocket as it coasts along with JWST after separation, " Tangmatitham wrote. "Both the upper stage and most of its exhaust would have similar elliptical trajectory with Webb right after separation, so they follow the same orbit. Since Webb is departing for L2, it would have to depart Earth somewhere in the night side close to the terminator, which happens to be exactly when this was taken. Right after this shot, the plume drifts up towards constellation Cetus near the horizon, then slowly fades away."

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