Tag Archives: comets

Comet Neowise: NOW is the time to go see it

Comet Neowise is now visible each evening just after sunset. This article shows a bunch of images produced by people worldwide.

The comet will not be back for thousands of years, so this will be your only chance to see it. And usually good evening-view comets occur only once every few decades, usually not more than once or thrice every century. If you want to see a comet in all its glory, Comet Neowise is giving you a chance, and now is the time to look.

It appears we will have a comet show in July!

After two other comets this spring suggested they might become bright naked eye objects and then fizzled, it now appears that Comet NEOWISE will deliver, having survived its closest approach to the Sun to now brighten towards first magnitude.

For the northern hemisphere, this is what to expect if you wish to see it:

In the morning sky, the first views of NEOWISE could come as early as July 5 or 6 in the morning sky, very low above the northeast horizon. By around July 11, the comet will reach an altitude of nearly 10 degrees — for comparison, 10 degrees is roughly equal to the width of your fist held at arm’s length. Then over the next 10 days it will gradually slide back down toward the north-northeast horizon, eventually disappearing from dawn visibility.

A far-better viewing perspective will become available in the evening sky starting around July 12, when it will appear low in the northwest sky. In the evenings to follow, the comet will rapidly climb higher in the sky.

On July 22, NEOWISE will make its closest approach to the Earth, a distance of 64 million miles (103 million km). By July 25, the comet will appear 30 degrees (“three fists”) up from the west-northwest horizon as darkness falls. And on July 30-31st, the comet will be passing just to the north of the fine star cluster of Coma Berenices or Berenice’s Hair.

Will this comet brighten more to become comparable to glorious Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997? Keep your fingers crossed.

That Jupiter Trojan comet-like asteroid was neither an asteroid nor a Trojan

Astronomers have now found that the asteroid that had suddenly become active, like a comet, and they had thought was part of the asteroids in Jupiter orbit called Trojans, was neither an asteroid nor a Trojan.

Instead, it is an actual comet captured in a strange unstable orbit around Jupiter.

[W]hen amateur astronomer Sam Deen used software on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s solar-system dynamics website to calculate the object’s orbit, he found P/2019 LD2 recently had a close encounter with Jupiter that left its orbit unstable. The model showed that the comet had likely been a Centaur, part of a family of outer solar system asteroids, with an orbit reaching out to Saturn. Then, on February 17, 2017, it passed about 14 million kilometers from Jupiter, an encounter that sent the comet on a wild ride and inserted it into an odd Jupiter-like orbit.

Yet although the swing past Jupiter put P/2019 LD2 into a Jupiter-like orbit, it didn’t move it near to one of the two Lagrange points where the combination of gravitational forces from Jupiter and the Sun hold Trojan asteroids. Instead of being 60° — one-sixth of the giant planet’s orbit — from Jupiter, P/2019 LD2 is only 21° ahead of Jupiter.

The orbit is unstable. It will bring the comet to within 3 million miles of Jupiter in 2063, but beyond that predictions are impossible. The exact closeness of that approach cannot be predicted with much precision, partly because of the chaotic nature of the orbit, and partly because of the random orbital changes that can occur because the comet is venting.

A Jupiter Trojan asteroid spouts a tail

The ATLAS telescope has discovered the first Jupiter Trojan asteroid to spout a tail like a comet.

Early in June 2019, ATLAS reported what seemed to be a faint asteroid near the orbit of Jupiter. The Minor Planet Center designated the new discovery as 2019 LD2. Inspection of ATLAS images taken on June 10 by collaborators Alan Fitzsimmons and David Young at Queen’s University Belfast revealed its probable cometary nature. Follow-up observations by the University of Hawaiʻi’s J.D. Armstrong and his student Sidney Moss on June 11 and 13 using the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) global telescope network confirmed the cometary nature of this body.

Later, in July 2019, new ATLAS images caught 2019 LD2 again – now truly looking like a comet, with a faint tail made of dust or gas. The asteroid passed behind the Sun and was not observable from the Earth in late 2019 and early 2020, but upon its reappearance in the night sky in April of 2020, routine ATLAS observations confirmed that it still looks like a comet. These observations showed that 2019 LD2 has probably been continuously active for almost a year.

While ATLAS has discovered more than 40 comets, what makes this object extraordinary is its orbit. The early indication that it was an asteroid near Jupiter’s orbit have now been confirmed through precise measurements from many different observatories. In fact, 2019 LD2 is a special kind of asteroid called a Jupiter Trojan – and no object of this type has ever before been seen to spew out dust and gas like a comet.

There are a number of mysteries here. First, why should it have suddenly become active, since its orbit is relatively circular (similar to Jupiter’s)? Second, it had been assumed that the Jupiter Trojans had been in their orbits for a long time and had long ago vented any ice on their surfaces. This discovery proves that assumption false. It suggests that either this asteroid is a comet that was recently captured, or that things can happen on these asteroids to bring some buried volatiles up to the surface, where they can then vent.

Above all, this asteroid shows that it is dangerous to assume all Jupiter Trojan asteroids are the same. I guarantee when we finally get a close look at a bunch, when the Lucy mission arrives beginning in 2027, the variety will be quite spectacular.

Hubble photographs break-up of Comet ATLAS

The break-up of Comet ATLAS
For the full images go to April 20 and April 23.

Cool image time! Scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope have captured the break-up of Comet ATLAS over a period of several days. The two images to the right, cropped and annotated to post here, were taken on April 20th and April 23rd respectively.

Hubble identified about 30 fragments on April 20, and 25 pieces on April 23. They are all enveloped in a sunlight-swept tail of cometary dust. “Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it’s quite difficult to connect the dots,” said David Jewitt, professor of planetary science and astronomy at UCLA, Los Angeles, California, leader of one of two teams who photographed the doomed comet with Hubble. “I don’t know whether this is because the individual pieces are flashing on and off as they reflect sunlight, acting like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, or because different fragments appear on different days.”

That there are fewer pieces in the later image could also be because the smaller fragments had crumbled even more during the three days between photos, and thus were simply too small to see any longer.

More data from interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it zipped past Sun in December

Astronomers studying interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it zipped past Sun in December have found that while in many ways it resembled solar system comets, the differences were revealing.

During its trip through the solar system, the comet lost nearly 61 million gallons (230 million liters) of water — enough to fill over 92 Olympic-size swimming pools. As it moved away from the Sun, Borisov’s water loss dropped off — and did so more rapidly than any previously observed comet. Xing said this could have been caused by a variety of factors, including surface erosion, rotational change and even fragmentation. In fact, data from Hubble and other observatories show that chunks of the comet broke off in late March.

…Swift’s water production measurements also helped the team calculate that Borisov’s minimum size is just under half a mile (0.74 kilometer) across. The team estimates at least 55% of Borisov’s surface — an area roughly equivalent to half of Central Park — was actively shedding material when it was closest to the Sun. That’s at least 10 times the active area on most observed solar system comets. Borisov also differs from solar system comets in other aspects. For example, astronomers working with Hubble and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a radio telescope in Chile, discovered Borisov produced the highest levels of carbon monoxide ever seen from a comet at that distance from the Sun.

Because more of the comet’s entire surface had water ice than seen in solar system comets, it suggests that the comet has never been close to another star before. That the water release dropped off precipitously however also suggests that that surface layer of ice was not very deep.

Interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov has an excess of carbon monoxide

Astronomers using two difference space telescopes have found that Comet 2I/Borisov, the first known interstellar comet, has an abundance of carbon monoxide when compared to solar system comets.

The team used Hubble’s unique ultraviolet sensitivity to spectroscopically detect carbon monoxide gas escaping from comet Borisov’s solid comet nucleus. Hubble’s Cosmic Origins Spectrograph observed the comet on four separate occasions, from Dec. 11, 2019 to Jan. 13, 2020, which allowed the researchers to see the object’s chemical composition change quickly, as different ice mixtures, including carbon monoxide, oxygen, and water, sublimated under the warmth of the Sun.

The Hubble astronomers were surprised to find that the interstellar comet’s coma, the gas cloud surrounding the nucleus, contains a high amount of carbon monoxide gas, at least 50% more abundant than water vapor. This amount is more than three times higher than the previously measured quantity for any comet entering the inner solar system. The water measurement was made by NASA’s Neil Gehrels-Swift satellite, whose observations were conducted in tandem with the Hubble study.

Carbon monoxide ice is very volatile. It doesn’t take much sunlight to heat the ice and convert it to gas that escapes from a comet’s nucleus. For carbon monoxide, this activity occurs very far from the Sun, about 11 billion miles away, more than twice the distance of Pluto at its farthest point from the Sun. In contrast, water remains in its icy form until about 200 million miles from the Sun, the approximate distance of the inner edge of the asteroid belt.

However, for comet Borisov, the Hubble measurements suggest that some carbon monoxide ice was locked inside the comet’s nucleus, revealed only when the Sun’s heat stripped away layers of water ice. “The amount of carbon monoxide did not drop as expected as the comet receded from the Sun. This means that we are seeing the primitive layers of the comet, which really reflect what this object is made of,” Bodewits explained. “Because of the abundance of carbon monoxide ice that survived so close to the Sun, we think that comet Borisov comes from a much colder place and from a very different debris disk around a star than our own.”

With solar system comets, the ratios between water and carbon monoxide are the reverse, with much more water detected. They theorize, based on these results, that the comet might have come from a cool red dwarf star, but with the available data that is nothing more than a guess at this point.

Confirmed: Comet ATLAS has broken apart

Astronomers have now confirmed the fact that Comet ATLAS has broken into several pieces, and will not put on a spectacular sky show this coming May.

Just a month ago, it looked like the icy wanderer, officially known as C/2019 Y4 Atlas, might put on a dazzling sky show around the time of its closest approach to the sun, or perihelion, which occurs on May 31.

But relatively lackluster behavior soon dimmed such hopes. And optimism surrounding the comet is now pretty much extinguished, for it’s no longer in one piece. Comet Atlas “has shattered both its and our hearts,” astrophysicist Gianluca Masi, the founder and director of the Virtual Telescope Project in Italy, said in an emailed statement on Sunday (April 12). “Its nucleus disintegrated, and last night I could see three, possibly four main fragments.”

A nice picture of the break-up can be seen here.

We are due for another great comet, like Comet Hale-Bopp in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, Comet ATLAS won’t be that comet.

Comet ATLAS appears to be breaking apart

Comet ATLAS, which astronomer hope could be the brightest comet in decades, is unfortunately showing evidence of breaking up, which if so could short circuit any spectacular comet show.

In a recent Astronomical Telegram, astronomers Quanzhi Ye (University of Maryland) and Qicheng Zhang (Caltech) report that photographs taken on April 2nd and April 5th of the comet revealed a marked change in the appearance of its core or pseudo-nucleus from starlike and compact to elongated and fuzzy. A second team of astronomers led by I. A. Steele (Liverpool John Moores University) confirmed the discovery. This change in appearance is “consistent with a sudden decline or cessation of dust production, as would be expected from a major disruption of the nucleus,” wrote Zhang and Ye.

An elongated nucleus is often a bad sign and could mean the comet’s headed for disintegration much like what happened to Comet Elenin (C/2010 X1) prior to its September 2011 perihelion passage when its core crumbled and the object rapidly dissipated. Addition evidence of ATLAS’s breakup comes from an unexpected shift in the direction of its orbital motion caused by “non-gravitational” forces. Fragmentation exposes fresh ice to sunlight which quickly vaporizes. The expanding gases act like a natural rocket engine and gently push the comet from its appointed path.

The article outlines in detail how bright ATLAS could become, because of its size and orbit and proximity to Earth as it passes closest to the Sun in late May. Assuming it does not disintegrate, it could end up brighter than Venus. Or not. Predicting the eventual brightness of a newly discovered comet is more guesswork than science. That the comet might be falling apart suggests its eventually brightness will be less that hoped.

Big sections break off of interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov

The uncertainty of science: New observations of the interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it exits our solar system indicate that large fragments have recently broken from it, and that the comet might possibly be on the verge of breaking up.

Astronomers have seen evidence of two fragments, but the data suggests these are relatively small compared to the entire comet. On the other hand,

Before perihelion, Jewitt’s analysis of Hubble images showed that Comet Borisov is much smaller than had been thought. The comet’s nucleus is not directly visible, but in the January 10th Astrophysical Journal Letters, Jewitt put its diameter between 0.4 and 1 kilometer. That’s small enough that solar vaporization of surface ices on the side facing the Sun could spin up its rotation beyond gravity’s ability to hold it together.

However, the comet’s size is tricky to estimate, as its surface appears to be emitting so much gas and dust that it obscures the nucleus. The fragment that Jewitt observed is about as bright as the comet itself, but because its surface is so icy and active, he thinks the fragment’s mass is less than 1% of the whole comet. That would make the split more like a side mirror dropping off a car than a car falling apart. Why the fragment split from the comet is unclear, but possibilities include thermal vaporization after new material was exposed, as well as the force from the comet’s spin if it’s spinning as fast as Jewitt suggests.

Whether the comet is about to break up remains unknown. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone was racing to put a mission together to visit it?

Comet C/2019 ATLAS brightening

Comet ATLAS, discovered in 2019 by a telescopic survey looking for near Earth asteroids, is brightening more than expected as it approaches the Sun, and could by May be visible to the naked eye.

Jonathan Shanklin, Director of the British Astronomical Association’s Comet Section, reports that the current comet, C/2019 Y4, brightened quite rapidly in mid February, and adds “as of March 11 there is no sign of a slowdown in the rate of brightening. It is already visible in large binoculars . . . The uncertainty in brightness at the time of perihelion is large, though the worst case indicator is 2nd magnitude. It will remain well placed for UK observers into May and could become a prominent object.”

If 2nd magnitude is the dimmest they presently expect, this comet will be one of the brightest objects in the sky come May. Stay tuned!

An update on Comet 2I/Borisov

Link here.

Overall, this second known interstellar object to pass through the solar system appears to be a very typical comet. They have found however that its nucleus is much smaller than at first thought, only 200 to 500 meters across, which means that radiation pressure from the Sun could cause its rotation to spin up, with the possibility that this spin could get fast enough to cause the comet to break up.

The comet made its closest approach to the Sun in December, and will spend the next year-plus flying outward to beyond Saturn.

New Hubble images of Comet 2I/Borisov

Comet 2I/Borisov taken by Hubble prior to and at its closest approach to Sun
Click for full image.

Scientists today released new images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the interstellar object Comet 2I/Borisov. The image on the left was taken prior to the comet’s closest approach to the Sun, while the image on the right was taken during that closest approach. The vertical smeared object to the left in the earlier image is a galaxy that happened to be in the field of view. The blue color of both images is a false color to bring out details.

“Hubble gives us the best upper limit of the size of comet Borisov’s nucleus, which is the really important part of the comet,” said David Jewitt, a UCLA professor of planetary science and astronomy, whose team has captured the best and sharpest look at this first confirmed interstellar comet. “Surprisingly, our Hubble images show that its nucleus is more than 15 times smaller than earlier investigations suggested it might be. Our Hubble images show that the radius is smaller than half-a-kilometer. Knowing the size is potentially useful for beginning to estimate how common such objects may be in the solar system and our galaxy. Borisov is the first known interstellar comet, and we would like to learn how many others there are.”

The first image was taken from a distance of 203 million miles, while the second was taken from 185 million miles. Expect more images in late December, when the comet makes its closest approach to Earth at a distance of 180 million miles.

TESS captures outburst from comet

Wirtanen outburst

The space telescope TESS, designed to look for exoplanets by imaging one hemisphere of the sky repeatedly over a full year, also successfully captured in those images the full outburst from the comet 46P/Wirtanen that occurred on September 26, 2018.

The animation created from those images is to the right.

According to Farnham, the TESS observations of comet Wirtanen were the first to capture all phases of a natural comet outburst, from beginning to end. He noted that three other previous observations came close to recording the beginning of an outburst event. Observations of a 2007 outburst from comet 17P/Holmes began late, missing several hours of the initial brightening phase of the event. In 2017, observations of an outburst from comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1 (SW1) concluded early, due to limitations on pre-scheduled observation time. And, while observations from the UMD-led Deep Impact mission captured an outburst from comet Tempel 1 in unprecedented detail in 2005, the outburst was not natural—created instead by the mission’s impactor module. However, the current observations are the first to capture the dissipation phase in its entirety, Farnham said.

Although Wirtanen came closest to Earth on December 16, 2018, the outburst occurred earlier in its approach, beginning on September 26, 2018. The initial brightening of the outburst occurred in two distinct phases, with an hour-long flash followed by a more gradual second stage that continued to grow brighter for another 8 hours. This second stage was likely caused by the gradual spreading of comet dust from the outburst, which causes the dust cloud to reflect more sunlight overall. After reaching peak brightness, the comet faded gradually over a period of more than two weeks. Because TESS takes detailed, composite images every 30 minutes, the team was able to view each phase in exquisite detail.

The data from TESS is likely going to overwhelm the astronomy community for years.

Comet Borisov is now 2I/Borisov

Because the comet that amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov discovered in August is actually the second interstellar object ever discovered that is entering the solar system, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has decided to dub it 2I/Borisov, honoring its discoverer as is traditional with comets but indicating its interstellar nature in the name.

The orbit is now sufficiently well known, and the object is unambiguously interstellar in origin; it has received its final designation as the second interstellar object, 2I. In this case, the IAU has decided to follow the tradition of naming cometary objects after their discoverers, so the object has been named 2I/Borisov.

As my regular readers know, I am not a fan of the IAU’s effort to claim the right to name every object in the universe. In this case it has at least made the proper decision.

New findings from Rosetta: Bouncing boulders and collapsing cliffs

cliff collapse on Comet 67P/C-G
Click for full image.

In reviewing the large image archive taken by Europe’s Rosetta probe while it orbited Comet 67P/C-G from 2014 to 2016, scientists have found more evidence of changes on its surface during its closest approach to the Sun, including a bouncing boulder and the collapse of large cliff.

The image on the right, reduced to post here, shows both wide (top) and close-up (bottom) views of the cliff collapse.

“This seems to be one of the largest cliff collapses we’ve seen on the comet during Rosetta’s lifetime, with an area of about 2000 square metres collapsing,” said Ramy, also speaking at EPSC-DPS today. … “Inspection of before and after images allow us to ascertain that the scarp was intact up until at least May 2015, for when we still have high enough resolution images in that region to see it,” says Graham, an undergraduate student working with Ramy to investigate Rosetta’s vast image archive.

“The location in this particularly active region increases the likelihood that the collapsing event is linked to the outburst that occurred in September 2015.”

These finds are only a sample of a number of similar discoveries since the end of the mission, as scientists pore through the more than 76,000 images in the Rosetta archive.

First high quality image of interstellar comet

Comet Borisov
Click for full image.

The Gemini Observatory on Mauna Kea has successfully taken the first high resolution image of comet C_2019 Q4, unofficially Comet Borisov (after its discoverer), the first interstellar comet ever discovered.

The image to right, cropped to post here, is that image. It clearly shows the growth of a coma and possible tail, indicating that as it is approaching the Sun it is releasing material from its surface.

Right now the comet is visually very close to the Sun, when looked at from the Earth, making observations difficult. As in the next few months it drops towards its closest approach of the Sun, and the Earth circles around in its own orbit, the viewing angle will improve.

Interstellar comet discovered?

An amateur astronomer has discovered what appears right now to be an interstellar comet making its approach into the solar system.

[I]mages show that the incoming object sports a faint but distinct coma and the barest hint of a tail — something ‘Oumuamua lacked — and thus appears to be a comet. Astronomers are no doubt eager to get spectra of the new find to determine what compounds might be escaping from its surface.

Based on current observations, C/2019 Q4’s eccentricity is about 3.2 — definitely hyperbolic. Objects on hyperbolic orbits are unbound to the Sun. They’re most likely to hail from beyond the solar system, flying in from great distances to pay our neighborhood a brief visit before heading off for parts unknown.

If this result holds up, astronomers have an unprecedented opportunity to study a potentially interstellar object in great detail over a long span of time. Based on the comet’s current magnitude (~18) and distance from the Sun (2.7 a.u.), it appears to be a fairly large object — perhaps 10 km or more across, depending on the reflectivity of its surface.

There remains a great deal of uncertainty about comet’s path, which will be better resolved with time and better data.

If it is a comet from beyond the solar system, it will be a spectacular goldmine for scientists, because its coma and tail will allow them to gather a great deal of information about its make-up, far more than they were able to gather about Oumuamua.

Amateur finds moon orbiting comet in Rosetta archive

In mining the Rosetta archive of images of Comet 67P/C-G, an amateur astronomer has discovered a twelve-foot-diameter chunk of material that had broken from the comet and was in orbit around it.

Modelling of the Rosetta images indicates that this object spent the first 12 hours after its ejection in an orbital path around 67P/C-G at a distance of between 2.4 and 3.9 km from the comet’s centre. Afterwards, the chunk crossed a portion of the coma, which appears very bright in the images, making it difficult to follow its path precisely; however, later observations on the opposite side of the coma confirm a detection consistent with the orbit of the chunk, providing an indication of its motion around the comet until 23 October 2015.

While it is not really unusual for their to be small objects in the coma of the the comet, orbiting it, this is apparently the largest so far found. That they missed it initially is also not surprising, considering the amount of data they were gathering in such a short time.

China announces plans for asteroid/comet sample return mission

The new colonial movement: China today announced plans to fly an ambitious mission to both an asteroid and comet, which would also bring back a sample from the asteroid.

The current plan, which is still under discussion, calls for a probe to visit and collect samples from the small near-Earth asteroid 2016 HO3 (also known as Kamo’oalewa). “Then, the probe will fly back to the proximity of Earth, and a return capsule will be released to bring the samples back to Earth,” Xinhua reported today (April 18), citing a China National Space Administration official. “After that, the probe will continue its journey. With the assistance of the gravity of Earth and Mars, it will finally arrive at the main asteroid belt and orbit the Comet 133P to explore it.”

Both objects are unusual. The asteroid is in a strange solar orbit that almost makes it a moon of the Earth, while the comet appears to be a main-belt asteroid with comet-like activity.

The mission is not finalized yet, so expect some revisions.

All high resolution images from Rosetta now available

The Rosetta science team has now made available to the public all 70,000 images taken by the spacecraft’s high resolution camera.

Between 2014 and 2016, the scientific camera system OSIRIS onboard ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft captured almost 70000 images of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. They not only document the most extensive and demanding comet mission to date, but also show the duck-shaped body in all its facets. In a joint project with the Department of Information and Communication at Flensburg University of Applied Sciences, the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), head of the OSIRIS team, has now published all of these images. The OSIRIS Image Viewer is suited to the needs of both laymen and expert and offers quick and easy access to one of the greatest scientific treasures of recent years.

The Rosetta archive can be found here.

Tess captures comet, variable stars, asteroids, and Martian light

During its testing period prior to beginning science operations this month, the exoplanet space telescope TESS spotted in one series of images a comet, a host of variable stars, some asteroids, and even the faint hint of some reflected light from Mars.

Over the course of these tests, TESS took images of C/2018 N1, a comet discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite on June 29. The comet, located about 29 million miles (48 million kilometers) from Earth in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus, is seen to move across the frame from right to left as it orbits the Sun. The comet’s tail, which consists of gases carried away from the comet by an outflow from the Sun called the solar wind, extends to the top of the frame and gradually pivots as the comet glides across the field of view.

In addition to the comet, the images reveal a treasure trove of other astronomical activity. The stars appear to shift between white and black as a result of image processing. The shift also highlights variable stars — which change brightness either as a result of pulsation, rapid rotation, or by eclipsing binary neighbors. Asteroids in our solar system appear as small white dots moving across the field of view. Towards the end of the video, one can see a faint broad arc of light moving across the middle section of the frame from left to right. This is stray light from Mars, which is located outside the frame. The images were taken when Mars was at its brightest near opposition, or its closest distance, to Earth.

The video that was compiled from these images is embedded below the fold.
» Read more

Pluto formed from a billion comets?

Scientists have come up with a new theory for the origin of Pluto, based on data from New Horizons and Rosetta, that suggests the planets formed from the accretion of a billion comets or Kuiper Belt objects.

“We’ve developed what we call ‘the giant comet’ cosmochemical model of Pluto formation,” said Dr. Christopher Glein of SwRI’s Space Science and Engineering Division. The research is described in a paper published online today in Icarus. At the heart of the research is the nitrogen-rich ice in Sputnik Planitia, a large glacier that forms the left lobe of the bright Tombaugh Regio feature on Pluto’s surface. “We found an intriguing consistency between the estimated amount of nitrogen inside the glacier and the amount that would be expected if Pluto was formed by the agglomeration of roughly a billion comets or other Kuiper Belt objects similar in chemical composition to 67P, the comet explored by Rosetta.”

This is only a hypothesis, but it is intriguing. It suggests that Pluto’s make-up came only from the outer parts of the solar system, thus constraining how much mixing between the solar system’s inner and outer regions occurred. For scientists trying to understand the formation of the entire solar system, this lack of mixing would be significant. It means that the gas giants, while migrating inward, never migrated outward.

Why jets formed on Comet 67P/C-G

Scientists analyzing the data produced by Rosetta while it was flying in formation with Comet 67P/C-G have determined that the comet’s complex topology acted almost like nozzles to encourage evaporating material to form jets.

The new study shows for the first time that mainly the unusual shape and jagged topography of the comet are responsible for this phenomenon. The researchers analyzed images at different observation geometries of the Hapi region located on the “neck” of the comet, the narrow part connecting its two lobes. In computer simulations, they were able to reproduce these images thus gaining a better understanding of the driving processes.

In particular, two effects proved to be decisive. Some regions on the surface are located at lower altitudes or in the shade. The first rays of sunlight reach them later. In contrast, the frost evaporates particularly efficiently from the early and strongly illuminated regions. In addition, pits and other concave structures virtually concentrate gas and dust emissions – much like an optical lens.

This means that predicting the evaporation patterns on other comets will require first obtaining a detailed map of the surface, showing both its topography and make-up. This also means that any future explorers will first have to send a robot scouting mission so that they can plan a safe arrival during active periods.

Star’s close approach 70,000 years ago pinned to cometary orbits

Astronomers now think they have pinned the orbits of about 340 comets to another star’s close approach to our solar system 70,000 years ago.

About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids. Astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the University of Cambridge have verified that the movement of some of these objects is still marked by that stellar encounter. At a time when modern humans were beginning to leave Africa and the Neanderthals were living on our planet, Scholz’s star – named after the German astronomer who discovered it – approached less than a light-year from the Sun. Nowadays it is almost 20 light-years away, but 70,000 years ago it entered the Oort cloud, a reservoir of trans-Neptunian objects located at the confines of the solar system.

This discovery was made public in 2015 by a team of astronomers led by Professor Eric Mamajek of the University of Rochester (USA). The details of that stellar flyby, the closest documented so far, were presented in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Now two astronomers from the Complutense University of Madrid, the brothers Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, together with the researcher Sverre J. Aarseth of the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom), have analyzed for the first time the nearly 340 objects of the solar system with hyperbolic orbits (very open V-shaped, not the typical elliptical), and in doing so they have detected that the trajectory of some of them is influenced by the passage of Scholz´s star.

It is likely that the close approach influenced a lot more objects, many of which might not have yet arrived in the inner solar system. Moreover, their computer models suggest that the star might have come closer to the Sun than 0.6 light years.

The organic dust of Comet 67P/C-G

A study of the dust released by Comet 67P/C-G and captured by Rosetta shows that carbon molecules appear to comprise the comet’s largest component, and that this material is found in the form of very large macromolecules.

As the study shows, organic molecules are among those ingredients at the top of the list. These account for about 45 percent of the weight of the solid cometary material. “Rosetta’s comet thus belongs to the most carbon-rich bodies we know in the solar system,” says MPS scientist and COSIMA team member Dr. Oliver Stenzel. The other part of the total weight, about 55 percent, is provided by mineral substances, mainly silicates. It is striking that they are almost exclusively non-hydrated minerals i.e. missing water compounds. “Of course, Rosetta’s comet contains water like any other comet, too,” says Hilchenbach. “But because comets have spent most of their time at the icy rim of the solar system, it has almost always been frozen and could not react with the minerals.” The researchers therefore regard the lack of hydrated minerals in the comet’s dust as an indication that 67P contains very pristine material.

…The current findings also touch on our ideas of how life on Earth came about. In a previous publication, the COSIMA team was able to show that the carbon found in Rosetta’s comet is mainly in the form of large, organic macromolecules. Together with the current study, it becomes clear that these compounds make up a large part of the cometary material. Thus, if comets indeed supplied the early Earth with organic matter, as many researchers assume, it would probably have been mainly in the form of such macromolecules.

Organic here does not mean life, but is instead used as chemists use it, to mean the molecule includes the element carbon. The results do suggest however that the early solar system had a lot of carbon available, and that much of it was in a relatively pure form available to interact with other elements.

Rosetta’s capture of a dust jet from Comet 67P/C-G

Dust jet on Comet 67P/C-G

Cool image time! The Rosetta science team has released images and data gathered in July 2016 when the spacecraft successfully observed a dust outburst erupting from Comet 67P/C-G’s surface. The image on the right, slightly reduced in resolution, shows that outburst.

When the Sun rose over the Imhotep region of Rosetta’s comet on July 3, 2016, everything was just right: As the surface warmed and began to emit dust into space, Rosetta’s trajectory led the probe right through the cloud. At the same time, the view of the scientific camera system OSIRIS coincidentally focused precisely on the surface region of the comet from which the fountain originated. A total of five instruments on board the probe were able to document the outburst in the following hours.

As should be expected, the results did not match the models or predictions. The jet, instigated by water-ice just below the surface turning into gas when heated by the Sun, was much dustier than predicted. They have theories as to why, but it appears that no one likes these theories that much.

Hubble spots most distance active comet yet

Comet C/2017 K2

Using the Hubble Space Telescope astronomers have imaged a comet that is sublimating material at a distance from the Sun farther than any previously known comet, out beyond Saturn.

“K2 is so far from the Sun and so cold, we know for sure that the activity — all the fuzzy stuff making it look like a comet — is not produced, as in other comets, by the evaporation of water ice,” said lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles. “Instead, we think the activity is due to the sublimation [a solid changing directly into a gas] of super-volatiles as K2 makes its maiden entry into the solar system’s planetary zone. That’s why it’s special. This comet is so far away and so incredibly cold that water ice there is frozen like a rock.”

Based on the Hubble observations of K2’s coma, Jewitt suggests that sunlight is heating frozen volatile gases – such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide – that coat the comet’s frigid surface. These icy volatiles lift off from the comet and release dust, forming the coma. Past studies of the composition of comets near the Sun have revealed the same mixture of volatile ices.

The significance here is that by studying the comet’s activity scientists will be able to identify some of these volatile gases, which in turn will tell them something about the make-up of the outermost fringes of the solar system.

One last image from Rosetta

Rosetta's last image

Engineers reviewing the last bits of telemetry that was transmitted back to Earth by Rosetta just before it crashed on Comet 67P/C-G have discovered one last image of the comet’s surface.

That image is on the right. It is slightly blurred because of the limitations of Rosetta’s camera at this short range, and the incompleteness of the data received.

The image covers an area about a meter across, with a resolution of about two millimeters per pixel.

I imagine this surface is relatively soft, since the gravity holding the comet together is so slight. If you wanted to dig down, you would find it easy digging.

Hubble finds binary asteroid that also acts like a comet

Worlds without end: Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have identified a strange new object in the asteroid belt, two asteroids closely orbiting each other while also acting like a comet.

The images of 288P, which is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, revealed that it was actually not a single object, but two asteroids of almost the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of about 100 kilometres. That discovery was in itself an important find; because they orbit each other, the masses of the objects in such systems can be measured.

But the observations also revealed ongoing activity in the binary system. “We detected strong indications of the sublimation of water ice due to the increased solar heating — similar to how the tail of a comet is created,” explains Jessica Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany), the team leader and main author of the research paper. This makes 288P the first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.

The data also suggests that this binary has only existed as such for a few thousand years, and probably broke into two pieces because of its rotation. When this happened, it exposed water ice buried below the surface, which having been exposed to sunlight is sublimating away and producing the binary’s cometlike of a tail and coma.

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