A close pass of Comet Wirtanen in 2018 offered researchers an unprecedented opportunity.
Comets are full of surprises. Not only do they often under- or very occasionally over- perform versus expectations, but they also offer a glimpse of the remnants of the very early solar system. In December 2018, astronomers had an unprecedented opportunity to study one of these relics of the early solar system up close as Comet 46P/Wirtanen sped by Earth just 30 times the Earth-Moon distance (7.1 million miles away) on its closest passage for this century.
In 2019, amateur astronomer Gennadiy Borisov discovered a comet, which now bears his name. There’s a long history of amateur astronomers discovering comets, as they approach our inner Solar System on their elongated orbits. But this one was different: it was moving much too fast to be gravitationally bound to the Sun.
It was an interstellar comet. And now, it looks like it has split into two chunks.
TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, has imaged an outburst from the comet 46P/Wirtanen. It caught the outburst in what NASA is calling the clearest images yet of a comet outburst from start to finish. A comet outburst is a significant but temporary increase in the comet’s activity, outside of the normal sunlight-driven vaporization of ices that creates a comet’s coma and tail.
Astronomers aren’t certain what causes them, but a new study based on this observation is shedding some light on them.
Comets hide their central engines well. From Earth, we see a bright, fuzzy coma and a tail or two. But the nucleus, the source of all the hubbub, remains deeply camouflaged by dust, at best appearing like a blurry star.
To see one up close, you need to send a spacecraft right into the comet’s coma and risk getting. Or you can do the job much more cheaply by bouncing radio waves off the nucleus and studying the returning echoes to create a shadowy image.
Although crude compared to optical photos of moons and planets, radar images reveal much about an asteroid including surface details like mountains, craters, shape and rotation rate. They’re also far superior to what optical telescopes can resolve when it comes to asteroids, which, as their name implies, appear star-like or nearly so in even large professional telescopes.
On Feb. 11, green-glowing comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova, made an unusually close pass of Earth, zipping just 7.7 million miles away. Astronomers made the most of the encounter by pressing the huge 1,000-foot-wide (305 meters) Arecibo radio dish into service to image the comet’s nucleus during and after closest approach.
“The Arecibo Observatory planetary radar system can pierce through the comet’s coma and allows us to study the surface properties, size, shape, rotation, and geology of the comet nucleus”, said Dr. Patrick Taylor, USRA Scientist and Group Lead for Planetary Radar at Arecibo.
Does the shape ring a bell? Remember Rubber Ducky? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the comet’s heart resembles the twin-lobed comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko orbited by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft. Using the dish, astronomers have seen bright regions and structures on the comet; they also discovered that the nucleus is a little larger than expected with a diameter of 0.8 mile (1.3 km) and rotates about once every 7.6 hours. Go to bed at 10 and wake up at 6 and the comet will have made one complete turn.
Radio observations of 45P/H-M-P will continue through Feb. 17. Right now, the comet is happily back in the evening sky and still visible with 10×50 or larger binoculars around 10-11 p.m. local time in the east. I spotted it low in Bootes last night about 15 minutes before moonrise under excellent, dark sky conditions. It looked like a faint, smoky ball nearly as big as the full moon or about 30 arc minutes across.
This week, the pale green blob (the green’s from fluorescing carbon), vaults upward from Bootes, crosses Canes Venatici and zooms into Coma Berenices. For maps to help you track and find it night by night, please click here. I suggest larger binoculars 50mm and up or a 6-inch or larger telescope. Be sure to use low power — the comet’s so big, you need a wide field of view to get dark sky around it in order to see it more clearly.
Very few comets pass near Earth compared to the number of asteroids that routinely do. That’s one reason 45P is only the seventh imaged using radar; rarely are we treated to such detailed views!
Remember 252P/LINEAR? This comet appeared low in the morning sky last month and for a short time grew bright enough to see with the naked eye from a dark site. 252P swept closest to Earth on March 21, passing just 3.3 million miles away or about 14 times the distance between our planet and the moon. Since then, it’s been gradually pulling away and fading though it remains bright enough to see in small telescope during late evening hours.
While amateurs set their clocks to catch the comet before dawn, astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured close-up photos of it two weeks after closest approach. The images reveal a narrow, well-defined jet of dust ejected by the comet’s fragile, icy nucleus spinning like a water jet from a rotating lawn sprinkler. These observations also represent the closest celestial object Hubble has observed other than the moon.
Sunlight warms a comet’s nucleus, vaporizing ices below the surface. In a confined space, the pressure of the vapor builds and builds until it finds a crack or weakness in the comet’s crust and blasts into space like water from a whale’s blowhole. Dust and other gases go along for the ride. Some of the dust drifts back down to coat the surface, some into space to be shaped by the pressure of sunlight into a dust tail.
You can still see 252P/LINEAR if you have a 4-inch or larger telescope. Right now it’s a little brighter than magnitude +9 as it slowly arcs along the border of Ophiuchus and Hercules. With the moon getting brighter and brighter as it fills toward full, tonight and tomorrow night will be best for viewing the comet. After that you’re best to wait till after the May 21st full moon when darkness returns to the evening sky. 252P will spend much of the next couple weeks near the 3rd magnitude star Kappa Ophiuchi, a convenient guidepost for aiming your telescope in the comet’s direction.
While you probably won’t see any jets in amateur telescopes, they’re there all the same and helped created this comet’s distinctive and large, fuzzy coma. Happy hunting!
Amateur astronomer Chris Schur of Arizona had only five minutes to observe and photograph Comet Catalina this morning before twilight got the better of the night. In that brief time, he secured two beautiful images and made a quick observation through his 80mm refractor. He writes:
“Very difficult observation on this one. (I observed) it visually with the 35mm Panoptic ocular. It was a round, slightly condensed object with no sign of the twin tails that show up in the images. After five minutes, we lost it visually as it was 2° degrees up in bright twilight. Images show it for a longer time and a beautiful emerald green head with two tails forming a Y shaped fan.”
Schur estimated the comet’s brightness at around magnitude +6. What appears to be the dust tail extends to the lower right (southeast) with a narrower ion tail pointing north. With its twin tails, I’m reminded of a soaring eagle or perhaps a turkey vulture rocking back and forth on its wings. While they scavenge for food, Catalina soaks up sunlight.
I also headed out before dawn for a look. After a failed attempt to spot the new visitor on Saturday, I headed down to the Lake Superior shoreline at 5:30 a.m. today and waited until the comet rose above the murk. Using 7×50 binoculars in a similar narrow observing window, I could barely detect it as a small, fuzzy spot 2.5° south of 4th magnitude Lambda Virginis at 5:50 a.m. 10 minutes after the start of astronomical twilight. The camera did better!
With the comet climbing about 1° per day, seeing conditions and viewing time will continue to improve. The key to seeing it is finding a location with an unobstructed view to the southeast — that’s why I chose the lake — and getting out while it’s still dark to allow time to identify the star field and be ready when the comet rises to greet your gaze.
Alan Hale, discoverer of Comet Hale-Bopp,also tracked down Catalina this morning with an 8-inch (20-cm) reflector at 47x. He reported its magnitude at ~+6.1 with a 2-arc-minute, well-condensed coma and a faint wisp of tail to the southeast. In an e-mail this morning, Hale commented on the apparent odd angle of the dust tail:
“Since the comet is on the far side of the sun as seen from Earth, with the typical dust tail lagging behind, that would seem to create the somewhat strange direction. It (the tail) almost seems to be directed toward the Sun, but it’s a perspective effect.”
There were side benefits to getting up early today. Three bright planets lit up Leo’s tail and Virgo’s “Cup” and a magnificent display of zodiacal light rose from the lake to encompass not only the comet but all the planets as well.
How would you like to see one of the most famous comets with your own eyes? Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko plies the morning sky, a little blot of fuzzy light toting an amazing visitor along for the ride — the Rosetta spacecraft. When you look at the coma and realize a human-made machine is buzzing around inside, it seems unbelievable.
If you have a 10-inch or larger telescope, or you’re an experienced amateur with an 8-inch and pristine skies, 67P is within your grasp. The comet glows right around magnitude +12, about as bright as it will get this apparition. Periodic comets generally appear brightest around and shortly after perihelion or closest approach to the Sun, which for 67P/C-G occurred back on August 13.
You’ll be looking for a small, 1-arc-minute-diameter, compact, circular patch of nebulous light shortly before dawn when it’s highest in the east. Rosetta’s Comet will spend the remainder of August slicing across Gemini the Twins north of an nearly parallel to the ecliptic. I spotted 67P/C-G for the first time this go-round about a week ago in my 15-inch (37 cm) reflector. While it appears like a typical faint comet, thanks to Rosetta, we know this particular rough and tumble mountain of ice better than any previous comet. Photographs show rugged cliffs, numerous cracks due to the expansion and contraction of ice, blowholes that serve as sources for jets and smooth plains blanketed in fallen dust.
The jets are geyser-like sprays of dust and gas that loft grit and rocks from the comet’s interior and surface into space to create a coma or temporary atmosphere. This is what you’ll see in your telescope. And if you’re patient, you’ll even be able to catch this glowing tadpole on the move. I was surprised at its speed. After just 20 minutes, thanks to numerous field stars that acted as references, I could easily spot the comet’s eastward movement using a magnification of 245x.
Tomorrow morning, 67P/C-G passes very close to the magnitude +5 star Omega Geminorum. While this will make it easy to locate, the glare may swamp the comet. Set your alarm for an hour before dawn’s start to allow time to set up a telescope, dark-adapt your eyes and track down the field where the comet will be that morning using low magnification.
Once you’ve centered 67P/C-G’s position, increase the power to around 100x-150x and use averted vision to look for a soft, fuzzy patch of light. If you see nothing, take it to the next level (around 200-250x) and carefully search the area. The higher the magnification, the darker the field of view and easier it will be to spot it.
Besides being relatively faint, the comet doesn’t get very high in the east before the onset of twilight. Low altitude means the atmosphere absorbs a share of the comet’s light, making it appear even fainter. Not that I want to dissuade you from looking! There’s nothing like seeing real 67P photons not to mention the adventure and sense of accomplishment that come from finding the object on your own.
As we advance into late summer and early fall, 67P/C-G will appear higher up but also be fading. Now through about August 27 and again from September 10-24 will be your best viewing times. That’s when the Moon’s absent from the sky.
Given the comet’s current distance from Earth of 165 million miles and apparent visual size of just shy of 1 arc minute, the coma measures very approximately 30,000 miles across. Rosetta orbits the comet’s 2.5-mile-long icy nucleus at a distance of about 115 miles (186 km), meaning it’s snug up against the nuclear center from our point of view on the ground.
A comet on a comet? That’s what it looks like, but you’re witnessing the most dramatic outburst ever recorded at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by the Rosetta spacecraft. The brilliant plume of gas and dust erupted on July 29 just two weeks before perihelion.
In a remarkable display of how quickly conditions on a comet can change, the outburst lasted only about 18 minutes, but its effects reverberated for days.
In a sequence of images taken by Rosetta’s scientific camera OSIRIS, the brilliant, well-defined jet erupts from the side of the comet’s neck in the Anuket region. It was first seen in a photo taken at 8:24 a.m. CDT, but not in one taken 18 minutes earlier, and had faded significantly in an image captured 18 minutes later. The camera team estimates the material in the jet was traveling at a minimum of 22 mph (10 meters/sec), but possibly much faster.
It’s the brightest jet ever seen by Rosetta. Normally, the camera has to be set to overexpose 67P/C-G’s nucleus to reveal the typically faint, wispy jets. Not this one. You can truly appreciate its brilliance because a single exposure captures both nucleus and plume with equal detail.
We all expected fireworks as the comet approached perihelion in its 6.5 year orbit around the Sun. Comets are brightest at and shortly after perihelion, when they literally “feel the heat”. Solar radiation vaporizes both exposed surface ices and ice locked beneath the comet’s coal-black crust. Vaporizing subsurface ice can created pressurized pockets of gas that seek a way out either through an existing vent or hole or by breaking through the porous crust and erupting geyser-like into space.
Jets carry along dust that helps create a comet’s fuzzy coma or temporary atmosphere, which are further modified into tails by the solar wind and the pressure of sunlight. When conditions and circumstances are right, these physical processes can build comets, the sight of which can fill the human heart with both terror and wonder.
This recent show of activity may be just the start of a round of outbursts at 67P/C-G. While perihelion occurs on this Thursday, a boost in a comet’s activity and brightness often occurs shortly after, similar to the way the hottest part of summer lags behind the date of summer solstice.
Rosetta found that the brief and powerful jet did more than make a spectacle — it also pushed away the solar wind’s magnetic field from around the nucleus as observed by the ship’s magnetometer. Normally, the Sun’s wind is slowed to a standstill when it encounters the gas cloud surrounding the nucleus.
“The solar wind magnetic field starts to pile up, like a traffic jam, and eventually stops moving towards the comet nucleus, creating a magnetic field-free region on the Sun-facing side of the comet called a ‘diamagnetic cavity’,” explained Charlotte Götz, magnetometer team member, on the ESA Rosetta website.
Only once before at Halley’s Comet has a magnetically “empty” region like this been observed. But that comet was so much more active than 67P/C-G and up until July 29, Halley’s remained the sole example. But following the outburst on that day, the magnetometer detected a diamagnetic cavity extending out at least 116 miles (186 km) from the nucleus. This was likely created by the outburst of gas, forcing the solar wind to ‘stop’ further away from the comet and thus pushing the cavity boundary outwards beyond where Rosetta was flying at the time.
Soon afterward the outburst, the comet pressure sensor of ROSINA detected changes in the structure of the coma, while its mass spectrometer recorded changes in the composition of outpouring gases. Compared to measurements made two days earlier, carbon dioxide increased by a factor of two, methane by four, and hydrogen sulphide by seven, while the amount of water stayed almost constant. No question about it – with all that hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell), the comet stunk! Briefly anyway.
It was also more hazardous. In early July, Rosetta recorded and average of 1-3 dust hits a day, but 14 hours after the event, the number leapt to 30 with a peak of 70 hits in one 4-hour period on August 1. Average speeds picked up, too, increasing from 18 mph (8 m/s) to about 45 mph (20 m/s), with peaks at 67 mph (30 m/s). Ouch!
“It was quite a dust party!” said Alessandra Rotundi, principal investigator of GIADA (Grain Impact Analyzer and Dust Accumulator).
67P/C-G’s little party apparently wasn’t enough to jack up its brightness significantly as seen from Earth, but that doesn’t mean future outbursts won’t. We’ll be keeping an eye on any suspicious activity through perihelion and beyond and report back here.
Comet 67P/C-G may be tiny at just 2.5 miles (4 km) across, but its diverse landscapes and the processes that shape them astound. To say nature packs a lot into small packages is an understatement.
In newly-released images taken by Rosetta’s high-resolution OSIRIS science camera, the comet almost seems alive. Sunlight glints off icy boulders and pancaking sinkholes blast geysers of dust into the surrounding coma.
More than a hundred patches of water ice some 6 to 15 feet across (a few meters) dot the comet’s surface according to a new study just published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. We’ve known from previous studies and measurements that comets are rich in ice. As they’re warmed by the Sun, ice vaporizes and carries away embedded dust particles that form the comet’s atmosphere or coma and give it a fuzzy appearance.
Not all that fine powder leaves the comet. Some settles back to the surface, covering the ice and blackening the nucleus. This explains why all the comets we’ve seen up close are blacker than coal despite being made of material that’s as bright as snow.
Scientists have identified 120 regions on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that are up to ten times brighter than the average surface brightness. Some are individual boulders, while others form clusters of bright specks. Seen in high resolution, many appear to be boulders with exposures of ice on their surfaces; the clusters are often found at the base of overhanging cliffs and likely got there when cliff walls collapsed, sending an avalanche of icy rocks downhill and exposing fresh ice not covered by dark dust.
More intriguing are the isolated boulders found here and there that appear to have no relation to the surrounding terrain. Scientists think they arrived George Jetson style when they were jetted from the comet’s surface by the explosive vaporization of ice only to later land in a new location. The comet’s exceedingly low gravity makes this possible. Let that image marinate in your mind for a moment.
All the ice-glinting boulders seen thus far were found in shadowed regions not exposed to sunlight, and no changes were observed in their appearance over a month’s worth of observations.
“Water ice is the most plausible explanation for the occurrence and properties of these features,” says Antoine Pommerol of the University of Bern and lead author of the study.
How do we know it’s water ice and not CO2 or some other form of ice? Easy. When the observations were made, water ice would have been vaporizing at the rate of 1 mm per hour of solar illumination. By contrast, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide ice, which have much lower freezing points, would have rapidly sublimated in sunlight. Water ice vaporizes much more slowly in comparison.
Lab tests using ice mixed with different minerals under simulated sunlight revealed that it only took a few hours of sublimation to produce a dust layer only a few millimeters thick. But it was enough to conceal any sign of ice. They also found that small chunks of dust would sometimes break away to expose fresh ice beneath.
“A 1 mm thick layer of dark dust is sufficient to hide the layers below from optical instruments,” confirms Holger Sierks, OSIRIS principal investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.
It appears then that Comet 67P’s surface is mostly covered in dark dust with small exposures of fresh ice resulting from changes in the landscape like crumbling cliffs and boulder-tossing from jet activity. As the comet approaches perihelion, some of that ice will become exposed to sunlight while new patches may appear. You, me and the Rosetta team can’t wait to see the changes.
Ever wonder how a comet gets its jets? In another new study appearing in the science journal Nature, a team of researchers report that 18 active pits or sinkholes have been identified in the comet’s northern hemisphere. These roughly circular holes appear to be the source of the elegant jets like those seen in the photo above. The pits range in size from around 100 to 1,000 feet (30-100 meters) across with depths up to 690 feet (210 meters). For the first time ever, individual jets can be traced back to specific pits.
In specially processed photos, material can be seen streaming from inside pit walls like snow blasting from a snowmaking machine. Incredible!
“We see jets arising from the fractured areas of the walls inside the pits. These fractures mean that volatiles trapped under the surface can be warmed more easily and subsequently escape into space,” said Jean-Baptiste Vincent from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, lead author of the study.
Similar to the way sinkholes form on Earth, scientists believe pits form when the ceiling of a subsurface cavity becomes too thin to support its own weight. With nothing below to hold it place, it collapses, exposing fresh ice below which quickly vaporizes. Exiting the hole, it forms a collimated jet of dust and gas.
The paper’s authors suggest three ways for pits to form:
* The comet may contain voids that have been there since its formation. Collapse could be triggered by either vaporizing ice or seismic shaking when boulders ejected elsewhere on the comet land back on the surface.
* Direct sublimation of pockets of volatile (more easily vaporized) ices like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide below the surface as sunlight warms the dark surface dust, transferring heat below.
* Energy liberated by water ice changing its physical state from amorphous to its normal crystalline form and stimulating the sublimation of the surrounding more volatile carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide ices.
The researchers think they can use the appearance of the sinkholes to age-date different parts of the comet’s surface — the more pits there are in a region, the younger and less processed the surface there is. They point to 67P/C-G’s southern hemisphere which receives more energy from the Sun than the north and at least for now, shows no pit structures.
The most active pits have steep sides, while the least show softened contours and are filled with dust. It’s even possible that a partial collapse might be the cause of the occasional outbursts when a comet suddenly brightens and enlarges as seen from Earth. Rosetta observed just such an outburst this past April. And these holes can really kick out the dust! It’s estimated a typical full pit collapse releases a billion kilograms of material.
With Rosetta in great health and perihelion yet to come, great things lie ahead. Maybe we’ll witness a new sinkhole collapse, an icy avalanche or even levitating boulders!
Tell me this montage shouldn’t be hanging in the Lourve Museum. Every time I think I’ve seen the “best image” of Rosetta’s comet, another one takes its place. Or in this case four! When you and I look at a comet in our telescopes or binoculars, we’re seeing mostly the coma, the bright, fluffy head of the comet composed of dust and gas ejected by the tiny, completely invisible, icy nucleus.
As we examine this beautiful set of photos, we’re privileged to see the individual fountains of gas and dust that leave the comet to create the coma. Much of the outgassing comes from the narrow neck region between the two lobes.
All were taken between February 25-27 at distances around 50-62 miles (80 to 100 km) from the center of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Looking more closely, the comet nucleus appears to be “glowing” with a thin layer of dust and gas suspended above the surface. In the lower left Feb. 27 image, a prominent streak is visible. While this might be a cosmic ray zap, its texture hints that it could also be a dust particle captured during the time exposure. Because it moved a significant distance across the frame, the possible comet chunk may be relatively close to the spacecraft. Just a hunch.
While most of Rosetta’s NAVCAM images are taken for navigation purposes, these images were obtained to provide context in support of observations performed at the same time with the Alice ultraviolet (UV) imaging spectrograph on Rosetta. Observing in ultraviolet light, Alice determines the composition of material in coma, the nucleus and where they interface. Alice will also monitor the production rates of familiar molecules like H2O, CO (carbon monoxide) and CO2 as they leave the nucleus and enter 67P’s coma and tail.
From data collected so far, the Alice team has discovered that the comet is unusually dark in the ultraviolet, and that its surface shows no large water-ice patches. Water however has been detected as vapor leaving the comet as it’s warmed by the Sun. The amount varies as the nucleus rotates, but the last published measurements put the average loss rate at 1 liter (34 ounces) per second with a maximum of 5 liters per second. Vapors from sublimating carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide ice have also been detected. Sometimes one or another will dominate over water, but overall, water remains the key volatile material outgassed in the greatest quantity.
That and dust. In fact, 67P is giving off about twice as much dust as gas. We see the comet’s dual emissions by reflected sunlight, but because there’s so much less material in the jets than what makes up the nucleus, they’re fainter and require longer exposures and special processing to bring out without seriously overexposing the comet’s core.
67P’s coma will only grow thicker and more intense as it approaches perihelion on August 13.