A New Type of Comet? And Where Did It Come From?

All comets are about the same, right? Not necessarily. Astronomer David Schleicher has been studying 150 comets, measuring the abundances of five different molecules in each comet. One of these comets, Comet 96P/Machholz 1 was different from all the rest, showing an extremely unusual chemistry. Schleicher believes the anomalous composition may reveal the existence of a new class of comets. What makes Machholz 1 different is that the molecule cyanogen, CN, is extremely depleted. In Machholz 1, CN is missing by about a factor of 72 from the average of other comets, i.e., only a little above one percent of normal. “This depletion of CN is much more than ever seen for any previously studied comet, and only one other comet has even exhibited a CN depletion,” said Schleicher. The cause of the chemical anomaly is unknown.

However Schleicher, a planetary astronomer at the Lowell Observatory has come up with three intriguing scenarios to explain origins of Machholz 1, and each one will yield important but differing new constraints on the formation or evolution of comets.

One possible explanation is that Machholz 1 did not originate in our Solar System, but instead escaped from another star. In this scenario, the other star’s proto-planetary disk might have had a lower abundance of carbon, resulting in all carbon-bearing compounds having lower abundances. “A large fraction of comets in our own Solar System have escaped into interstellar space, so we expect that many comets formed around other stars would also have escaped,” said Schleicher. “Some of these will have crossed paths with the sun, and Machholz 1 could be an interstellar interloper.”

Another possible explanation for Machholz 1’s anomalous composition is that it formed even further from the sun in a colder or more extreme environment than any other comet we have studied thus far. If this was the case, then the scarcity of such objects is likely associated with the significant difficulty of explaining how such comets moved into the inner solar system where they can then be discovered and observed.

A third possibility is that Machholz 1 originated as a carbon-chain depleted comet but that its chemistry was subsequently altered by extreme heat. While no other comet has exhibited changes in chemistry due to subsequent heating by the sun, Machholz 1 has the distinction of having an orbit that now takes it to well inside Mercury’s orbit every five years. (Other comets get even closer to the sun, but not as often). “Since its orbit is unusual, we must be suspicious that repeated high temperature cooking might be the cause for its unusual composition,” said Schleicher. “However, the only other comet to show depletion in the abundance of CN did not reach such high temperatures. This implies that CN depletion does not require the chemical reactions associated with extreme heat.”

Although comet 96P/Machholz 1 was first sighted in 1986 and orbits the sun with a period of slightly over five years, compositional measurements only took place during the comet’s recent 2007 apparition. Lowell Observatory’s program of compositional studies, currently headed by Schleicher, includes measurements of over 150 comets obtained during the past 33 years. This research is unique because it compares and contrasts Machholz 1 against this large database of 150 comets.

Currently there are two types of comets, these being identified by a program at the Lowell Obervatory in the early 1990s. One class, containing the majority of observed comets, has a composition called “typical.” Most members of this typical class have long resided in the Oort Cloud at the very fringes of our Solar System but are believed to have originally formed amidst the giant planets, particularly between Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Other members of this compositional class arrived from the Kuiper Belt, located just beyond Neptune.

The second compositional class of comets has varying depletions in two of the five chemical species measured. Since both depleted molecules, C2 and C3, are wholly composed of carbon atoms, this class was named “carbon-chain depleted.” Moreover, nearly all comets in this second class have orbits consistent with their having arrived from the Kuiper Belt. For this and other reasons, the cause of the depletion is believed to be associated with the conditions that existed when the comets formed, perhaps within an outer, colder region of the Kuiper Belt.

Comets are widely thought to be the most pristine objects available for detailed study remaining from the epoch of Solar System formation. As such, comets can be used as probes of the proto-planetary material that was incorporated into our Solar System. Differences in the current chemical composition among comets can indicate either differences in primordial conditions or evolutionary effects.

Although the location of origin cannot be definitively determined for any single comet, Machholz 1’s short orbital period means that astronomers can search for additional carbon-bearing molecular species during future apparitions. “If additional carbon-bearing species are also strongly depleted, then the case for its origin outside of our Solar System would be strengthened,” said Schleicher. The next opportunity for observations will be in 2012.

The study is published in the November issue of the Astronomical Journal.

Source: Lowell Observatory

15 Replies to “A New Type of Comet? And Where Did It Come From?”

  1. Typo alert!

    you wrote:

    Comet 96P/Machholz 1 was different from all the rest, showing an extremely usual chemistry.

    Surely you meant unusual?

  2. WHY is this site now so ungodly SLOW?? I have cable internet and it took 16 seconds to load this page!

  3. Yeah, it’s been reeeeeeally slow all day long.
    It either takes five minutes to load a page or you get an error message, “Page not found.”

  4. Jorge.

    How about sending an email to the author.

    It always disappoints me when the comments section is used to correct spelling.

  5. Zibit, because UT does not provide the emails of each individual author (that I know of), and I know from experience that it may take a while in this kind of website for an email sent to the common address to reach the person it should reach.

    Note, however, that this isn’t a matter of spelling. I don’t ever comment to correct spelling – at most I may mention some spelling mistake en passant while I’m commenting something else, and that rarely. Heck, I’m not even a native English speaker, and I have my own spelling mistakes to bother with. No. This is a typo that could confuse some readers, which is another beast alltogether. These I do mention whenever I spot them, because I think it’s in the interest of UT to correct them asap.

  6. Why is this site so slow???? Because Ms. Atkinson is the best and hardest working dang science news writer on the web, that’s why. Check out her website.

    I like explanation 1: It came from another star system. Scary in that we may need to look for stray comets traveling inter-solar system for NEA objects that could end the party sooner than as planned by Sol.

  7. Jorge- thanks for noticing the error, its been fixed. I’ve tried twice to post a note about it, but for some reason WordPress doesn’t like me adding comments today…

    And Joe, you are too kind; thanks for the nice words

  8. What are the orbital characteristics of this comet? If it has a prograde orbit within a few degrees of the ecliptic plane then it is far more likely to be from the Kuyper Belt. If it is retrograde or highly inclined then the implication is that it is an Oort Cloud comet, although an extra solar origin would be a possibility.


  9. Just a chemist’s curiosity:
    does the article refer to the actual cyanogen molecule (CN)2 or to the radical species .CN?
    I don’t even know if it’s possible to distinguish the two species from the observations..!

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