Last Saturday, a glowing speck of light exploded in the shadows behind Jupiter. And then it continued to explode, firing two more violent jets of material into space on Sunday, followed by a fourth paroxysm on Monday. As it enraged and flared up, it became 250 times brighter than usual, like a lit match turning into a bonfire.
This is not a distant stormy star, nor is it an effervescent world covered with erupting volcanoes. This is Comet 29P. And it put on a once-in-a-lifetime performance that anyone with a powerful enough backyard telescope can see.
As far as astronomers know, this is the first time this comet has exhibited four closely spaced explosions.
“Some call it the superburst,” he said. Maria Womack, an astrophysicist at the National Science Foundation. “This requires an enormous amount of energy.”
What is causing this comet’s violent cascade?
“We don’t know,” said Dr. womac “And that’s what makes it so interesting.”
Comets are icy remnants from the anarchic birth of the solar system that are occasionally pulled towards the sun by gravitational forces. Every comet is novel in its own way. But Comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann – or 29P – “weird on many levels,” he said. Kacper Wierzchos, an astronomer at the University of Arizona.
Unlike most comets, it does not plunge dramatically towards the sun before returning to the outermost boundary of the solar system. Instead, this 37-mile-wide ice ball orbits the sun in the space between Jupiter and Saturn – making it a sort of object. centaur – in a strange, near-circular orbit, it completes a circumnavigation every 14.6 years.
Despite being 560 million miles from the sun, 29P is in an almost perpetual rage, frequently spewing gas and dust into the surrounding darkness. Dr. “It’s always active and never shuts down,” Womack said.
This hyperactivity is perhaps the result of his dominance. carbon monoxide — a volatile gas — only needs a tablespoon of sunlight to heat up dramatically and gas large volumes of space. These eruptions briefly illuminate the comet’s atmosphere, or coma, by filling it with dust that reflects sunlight.
There are at least seven bright eruptions per year. Dr. “No other known comet in the solar system experiences explosions of such frequency and intensity,” said Wierzchoś.
But this exhibitionist comet outdid itself last week with four bursts in a row. Amateur and professional astronomers around the world immediately noticed that its “brightness increases in leaps.” Richard MilesDirector of the British Astronomical Society’s asteroids and distant planets division.
But the reason for this comet contest is unknown.
Dr. The problem, Womack said, is that “we don’t know what triggers the 29P’s explosions.” Perhaps they’re triggered by the explosive evaporation of some of the comet’s chemistry. However, Dr. Wierzchoś’s work found that you can get a very dust-rich explosion without an accompanying explosion of carbon monoxide gas.
Dr. These eruptions could be the result of cryovolcanism, Miles said. Sunlight warms and softens parts of the surface under which a subterranean melt (cryomagma) of exotic ice lies. When the comet’s weakened shell ruptures, its cryomagma can be exposed to the vacuum of space. Dissolved carbon monoxide then expels violently, pushing the cryomagma into the cosmic expanse like champagne popping the cork out of a rapidly opened bottle.
Historically, more eruptions occur after 29P makes its closest approach to the sun, which was in 2019. So why this super boom now?
Maybe there was a massive landslide or a large 29P piece broke off. “Who knows,” said Dr. Wierzchoś.
Whatever the reason for this celestial spectacle, 29P remains “a rare, always-on natural laboratory for studying the composition and behavior of primitive icy objects in the solar system,” Dr. womac Almost a century after its discovery, the comet’s most recent record-breaking quadruple explosion highlights why many astronomers love to study these flamboyant objects.
“They’ll surprise you,” said Dr. womac