Astronomers recently rejoiced after seeing a strange volcanic comet burst like a “champagne bottle”, spraying gas and ice across the solar system like sparkling wine. The unusual explosion was cause for celebration as, for the first time, researchers successfully predicted it was about to happen.
The volatile comet, known as 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann (29P), is about 60 kilometers wide and takes about 14.9 years to orbit the sun. In addition to being volcanic, 29P has an unusually circular orbit for a comet and runs much slower than expected. It’s one of about 100 comets, called “centaurs”, that have been pushed from the Kuiper Belt – a ring of icy comets that lurk beyond Neptune – into a closer orbit around the sun closer of Jupiter.
Unlike volcanoes on Earth, which eject hot magma and ash from the planet’s mantle, 29P spews extremely cold gases and ice from its super cold interior. This unusual type of volcanic activity is known as cryovolcanism or “cold volcanism”.
On April 2, scientists from the British Astronomical Association (BAA) observed a sharp spike in the brightness of 29P, which was caused by light reflecting off the recently ejected gas and ice, or cryomagma, in the coma of the comet – the gas cloud that surrounds the comet. body or nucleus. The eruption was probably quite large given that the coma outnumbered the nucleus by a factor of more than 10, Spaceweather.com (opens in a new tab) reported, but its exact strength has yet to be quantified.
The eruption was “like a cork coming out of a bottle of champagne,” according to Spaceweather.com.
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29P is one of the most volcanically active comets in the world. solar system, and researchers have seen it explode hundreds of times before. In November 2022, the icy comet experienced a massive eruption that spit out over a million tons of cryomagma, making it the second largest such explosion recorded in the past 12 years. But, as with all other past flares from 29P, astronomers had no idea the huge flare was imminent before it happened.
However, this time the researchers strongly suspected that 29P was going to burst.
Cryovolcanic bodies, which include a handful of other comets and several solar system moons such as Saturn’s Enceladus, Jupiter’s Europa, and Neptune’s Triton, have a surface crust surrounding a mostly solid ice core, Richard Miles (opens in a new tab), a BAA astronomer who has studied 29P, told Live Science last year. Over time, solar radiation can shift a comet’s icy interior from solid to gas, causing pressure to build up beneath the crust, although gas is continually escaping at the same time. When radiation from the sun weakens the crust, this pressure causes the outer shell to crack and cryomagma erupts into space.
On April 1, BAA astronomers noticed that the light surrounding the comet’s nucleus was “the faintest we’ve ever seen,” Miles wrote in a statement (opens in a new tab). It was a sign that less gas was escaping from the comet’s outer crust than usual, suggesting pressure was building at an increased rate inside the comet, he added. This made an eruption “very likely to occur”.
The latest flare is proof that 29P flares can be predicted in advance, which will hopefully help researchers study future flares in more detail.
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