A Weather Satellite Watched a Space Rock Burn Up Above Spain and Portugal

A map of the track of the vaporizing space rock that lit up skies over Portugal and Spain on May 18, 2024. The track was created from position measurements of the fireball flashes as seen by ESA's MeteoSat weather satellite. Courtesy ESA.
A map of the track of the vaporizing space rock that lit up skies over Portugal and Spain on May 18, 2024. The track was created from position measurements of the fireball flashes as seen by ESA's MeteoSat weather satellite. Courtesy ESA.

It’s been a momentous May for skywatchers around the world. First the big auroral event of May 10-11, next a flaming space rock entering over Spain and Portugal. The inbound object was captured by ground-based cameras and the MeteoSat Third Generation Imager in geostationary orbit.

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Someone Just Found SOHO's 5,000th Comet

The 5,000th comet discovered with the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) spacecraft is noted by a small white box in the upper left portion of this image. A zoomed-in inset shows the comet as a faint dot between the white vertical lines. The image was taken on March 25, 2024, by SOHO’s Large Angle and Spectrometric Coronagraph (LASCO), which uses a disk to block the bright Sun and reveal faint features around it. Credit: NASA/ESA/SOHO

The Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) was designed to examine the Sun, but as a side benefit, it has been the most successful comet hunter ever built. Since early in the mission, citizen scientists have been scanning through the telescope’s data, searching for icy objects passing close to the Sun. An astronomy student in Czechia has identified 200 comets in SOHO data since he started in 2009 at the age of 13. He recently spotted the observatory’s 5,000th comet.

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Comets: Why study them? What can they teach us about finding life beyond Earth?

Image of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko taken by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft on Jan. 31, 2015. (Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0)

Universe Today has explored the importance of studying impact craters, planetary surfaces, exoplanets, astrobiology, and solar physics, and what this myriad of scientific disciplines can teach scientists and the public regarding the search for life beyond Earth. Here, we will explore some of the most awe-inspiring spectacles within our solar system known as comets, including why researchers study comets, the benefits and challenges, what comets can teach us about finding life beyond Earth, and how upcoming students can pursue studying comets. So, why is it so important to study comets?

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A Star Passed Through the Oort Cloud Less Than 500,000 Years Ago. It Wasn’t the Only One.

Stars travel throughout the Galaxy. It's inevitable that some will pass near the Sun and perhaps even through our Oort Cloud, with interesting consequences. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.
Stars travel throughout the Galaxy. It's inevitable that some will pass near the Sun and perhaps even through our Oort Cloud, with interesting consequences. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

As stars in the Milky Way move through space, some of them have an unexpected effect on the Solar System. Over time, one comes closer to the Sun during its orbit in the galaxy. Some of them actually get within a light-year of our star and pass through the Oort Cloud. Such close flybys can affect the orbits of the outer planets and send cometary nuclei on a long inward rush to the Sun.

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Some of the Moon's Craters are From Interstellar Impacts. Can We Tell Which?

Far Side of Moon Imaged by MoonKAM. This image of the lunar surface was taken by the MoonKAM system onboard NASA’s Ebb spacecraft on March 15, 2012. Credit: NASA/Caltech-JPL/MIT/SRS

By discovering two interstellar objects (ISOs), we know that asteroids and comets from other star systems pass through the Solar System from time to time. By inference, some of these must have crashed into the Moon, creating impact craters. If we could study the impact sites, we might be able to learn about the star systems that they came from.

A new paper suggests there could be a way to determine which lunar craters came from interstellar object impacts. The authors say that young, small craters with high-melt volume near the Moon’s equator are likely the best candidates for ISO-generated craters on the lunar surface.

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JWST Finds a Comet Still Holding Onto Water in the Main Asteroid Belt

This artist's illustration shows the rocky body of a comet with a detailed, cratered surface. Glowing rays emanate from the rocky surface like sunlight through clouds, representing water ice being vapourised by the heat of the Sun. Image Credit: NASA, ESA

Comets are instantly recognizable by their tails of gas and dust. Most comets originate in the far, frozen reaches of our Solar System, and only visit the inner Solar System occasionally. But some are in the Main Asteroid Belt, mixed in with the debris left over after the Solar System formed.

Astronomers just found water vapour coming from one of them.

“With Webb’s observations of Comet Read, we can now demonstrate that water ice from the early Solar System can be preserved in the asteroid belt.”

Michael Kelley, University of Maryland
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Here's How NASA is Planning to Protect Earth From Asteroids and Comets

This diagram shows the orbits of 2,200 potentially hazardous objects as calculated by JPL’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS). Highlighted is the orbit of the double asteroid Didymos, the target of NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The large impact craters dotting our planet are powerful reminders that asteroids and comets strike the Earth from time to time. As often said, it’s not a question of “if”; it’s a matter of “when” our planet will face an impending strike from space. But an impact is one existential threat humanity is finally starting to take seriously and wrap its head around.

Seemingly spurred by the success of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), NASA just released a new planetary defense strategy and action plan, describing its efforts to find and identify potentially hazardous objects to provide an advanced warning, and then even push them off an impact trajectory.

This 10-year strategy looks to advance efforts to protect the Earth from a devastating encounter with a Near Earth asteroid or comet.

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Why Does ‘Oumuamua Follow Such a Bizarre Orbit? Hydrogen Outgassing

An artist’s depiction of the interstellar comet ‘Oumuamua, as it warmed up in its approach to the sun and outgassed hydrogen (white mist), which slightly altered its orbit. The comet, which is most likely pancake-shaped, is the first known object other than dust grains to visit our solar system from another star. (Image credit: NASA, ESA and Joseph Olmsted and Frank Summers of STScI)
An artist’s depiction of the interstellar comet ‘Oumuamua, as it warmed up in its approach to the sun and outgassed hydrogen (white mist), which slightly altered its orbit. The comet, which is most likely pancake-shaped, is the first known object other than dust grains to visit our solar system from another star. (Image credit: NASA, ESA and Joseph Olmsted and Frank Summers of STScI)

Nothing excites space enthusiasts like a good alien mystery. The interstellar visitor ‘Oumuamua presented one as it moved through the inner solar system in 2017. At least one scientist has insisted that this pancake-shaped object is an alien spacecraft. That’s because of the way it accelerated away from the Sun as it passed through. However, a number of planetary scientists say its activity might be more comet-like—something fairly common in the solar system.

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Spectacular Images of the Rare ‘Green Comet’ Gracing Our Skies

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) seen from Payton, Arizona on January 21, 2023. Credit and copyright: Chris Schur.

A rare ‘green’ comet is passing through our Solar System and astrophotographers have been out capturing photos. While this comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF) is not yet visible yet to the naked eye, it could be when it makes its closest approach to Earth on February 1, but you’ll likely need to be in a very dark site. As of now, you’ll need a telescope or binoculars to see it for yourself. The images here are taken with several minutes of exposure time.

This comet has been dubbed the “Green Comet” because of its greenish hue. Professor Paul Wiegert from Western University in Canada said that comets contain carbon-bearing molecules, which break down under ultraviolet light from the Sun. This produces, among other things, dicarbon molecules which produce the eerie green glow associated with some comets.

Our lead photo comes from photographer Chris Schur from Arizona, and he points out that the comet has a rare sun-ward pointing anti-tail. 

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Comet Impacts Could Have Brought the Raw Ingredients for Life to Europa’s Ocean

An artist's concept of a comet or asteroid impact on Jupiter's moon Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jupiter is the most-visited planet in the Solar System, thanks largely to NASA. It all started with Pioneer 10 and 11, followed by Voyager 1 and 2. Those were all flyby missions, and it wasn’t until 1996 that the Galileo spacecraft became the first to orbit the gas giant and even send a probe into its atmosphere. Then in 2016, the Juno spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter and is still there today.

All of these missions were focused on Jupiter, but along the way, they gave us tantalizing hints of the icy moon Europa. The most impactful thing we’ve learned is that Europa, though frozen on the surface, holds an ocean under all that ice. And that warm, salty ocean might contain more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.

Might it hold life?

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