Who can forget last October, when astronomers all over the world were astounded by the huge outburst of Comet Holmes? The eruption was the largest for more than a century. (Click on image to animate.) Fortunately for the world, a UK telescope was in the right place and the right time to capture the first images of this once-in-a-lifetime event.
The SuperWASP-North facility on the island of La Palma was built by UK scientists to discover planets around other stars. The 8 cameras that make up the system operate robotically, automatically scanning large areas of the sky each night. By coincidence, at 2339 GMT on the evening of 24 October 2007, it was pointing towards Comet 17P Holmes.
“By the time SuperWASP spotted the comet, it had already brightened by a factor of 1000” explains Dr. Henry Hsieh. “But this was still almost 3 hours before anyone else noticed it.” (The lucky astronomer and the honor belongs to amateur astronomer Juan Antonio Henriquez Santana who saw the eruption from Tenerife. Score a point for those of us who scan the skies!). Over the next 2 hours the comet continued brightening, until SuperWASP could no longer accurately measure it – it was too bright for the cameras.
Orbiting the Sun, comets are mainly composed of frozen gases and microscopic solid particles in a small solid nucleus. As they pass by our solar system’s nearest star, they heat up, releasing gas pockets and other frozen materials. Most of us understand outgassing and the properties of cometary tails, but during this outburst, Comet Holmes released a large amount of its material all at once.
Two days after the eruption began, sunlight reflecting from the ejected material had made the comet one million times brighter than it was originally making it easily visible to observers across the northern hemisphere. Dr. Hsieh comments:
“Over the next few weeks, SuperWASP continued to observe Comet Holmes as the cloud of dust and gas surrounding the 3-km diameter nucleus of the comet steadily expanded. By 31st October, the cloud was already 900,000 km across or more than twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Using our SuperWASP observations, we measured the speed of expansion of the outer edge of this cloud to be over 1500 km per hour and by 17 November measured the size of the cloud to be more than 2 million km across – much larger than the Sun.”
Two weeks after the outburst, SuperWASP scored again – the faint and delicate tail of Comet Holmes composed of the gas released from the nucleus. As astronomers watched over the next few weeks, this tail gradually faded and moved away from the comet. Although many images were gathered by astronomers around the world, the precise cause of the outburst is still a mystery. All they know right now is that it happened once before – in 1892 – and may well happen again. Keep watching!