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Rosetta’s Comet Wakes Up


It’s back! After comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko had disappeared behind the Sun and out of the Earth’s view last year in October, the target comet of ESA’s Rosetta mission can now be seen again. In the most recent image obtained by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) with the help of ESO’s Very Large Telescope on February 28th, 2014, the comet presents itself brighter than expected for the nucleus alone. This suggests that frozen ice is already beginning to vaporize and form a very thin atmosphere. In August, the spacecraft Rosetta will rendezvous with 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and accompany it on its journey around the Sun until at least the end of 2015.

To obtain a measurable image of the comet from a distance of 740 million kilometers, the scientists superposed several exposures taken at slightly different times. Before, the images were shifted to compensate for the comet’s motion. The stars in the background therefore appear as broadly smudged lines. Subtracting the starry background then revealed the comet: a tiny dot in space.

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Subaru Telescope Detects Rare Form Of Nitrogen In Comet ISON

February 24, 2014 Leave a comment

A team of astronomers, led by Ph.D. candidate Yoshiharu Shinnaka and Professor Hideyo Kawakita, both from Kyoto Sangyo University, successfully observed the Comet ISON during its bright outburst in the middle of November 2013. Subaru Telescope’s High Dispersion Spectrograph (HDS) detected two forms of nitrogen–14NH2 and 15NH2–in the comet. This is the first time that astronomers have reported a clear detection of the relatively rare isotope 15NH2 in a single comet and also measured the relative abundance of two different forms of nitrogen (“nitrogen isotopic ratio”) of cometary ammonia (NH3). Their results support the hypothesis that there were two distinct reservoirs of nitrogen the massive, dense cloud (“solar nebula”) from which our Solar System may have formed and evolved.

Why did the team focus on studying these different forms of nitrogen in the comet? Comets are relatively small Solar System objects composed of ice and dust, which formed 4.6 billion years ago in the solar nebula when our Solar System was in its infancy. Because they usually reside in cold regions far from the Sun, e.g., the Kuiper belt and Oort cloud, they probably preserve information about the physical and chemical conditions in the early Solar System. Different forms and abundances of the same molecule provide information about their source and evolution. Were they from a stellar nursery (a primordial interstellar cloud) or from a distinctive cloud (solar nebula) that may have formed our Solar System’s star, the Sun? Scientists do not yet understand very well how cometary molecules separate into isotopes with different abundances. Isotopes of nitrogen from ammonia (NH3) may hold the key.

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Hyper Suprime-Cam Captures A Clear Image Of Comet ISON’s Long Tails

November 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Imaged by HSC

Imaged by HSC

During an intensive commissioning run, Hyper Suprime-Cam (HSC), mounted at prime focus on the Subaru Telescope, has successfully imaged the Comet ISON (C/2012 S1) as it journeys toward the Sun. Especially striking in the HSC image are the comet’s long tails, which span a distance more than twice the diameter of the full moon.

The observation took place in the early morning of November 5, 2013 in Hawaii during a test of non-sidereal tracking, which follows an object that moves at a different rate than the stars. Since Solar System objects such as comets and asteroids appear to move faster than more distant stars and galaxies, they require this special mode of telescope tracking, which allows observers to keep the target in view. An additional challenge for tracking Comet ISON was its low altitude of less than 30 degrees. Nevertheless, the commissioning team was able to capture a clear image of the comet and its tails, including their faint parts, which extend more than one degree away from the Sun. At the time of the observation, Comet ISON was 170 million kilometers from the Earth and 130 million kilometers from the Sun.

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Comet ISON Brightening Fast As Its Moment Of Truth Nears

November 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Comet ISON. Credit: Damian Peach / SkyandTelescope.com

Comet ISON. Credit: Damian Peach / SkyandTelescope.com

Comet ISON, anticipated by skywatchers for more than a year, is brightening fast just days from its fateful hairpin swing on November 28th around the broiling surface of the Sun. The comet is now a greenish-white fuzzy “star” in binoculars, low in the east-southeast at the beginning of dawn. Telescopic photos are showing it with a long, ribbony tail. The comet has flared with unexpected outbursts of gas and dust three times already this month.

“We might witness a nice, long-tailed comet visible to the naked eye that will leave millions of people with fond memories for a lifetime,” says Alan MacRobert, a senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. “Or maybe it will be a small comet for sky hunters using binoculars and a good map of its position. Or it might yet break up and vanish.”

It all depends on what happens to the comet’s tiny nucleus, its only solid part. A comet’s nucleus is a dirty iceball that’s just a pinpoint by astronomical standards — in this case less than a mile or two across. As it flies in from the cold outer solar system and warms in the heat of the Sun, some of its ice evaporates, releasing gas and dust that expands by thousands or even millions of miles to become the comet’s glowing head (“coma”) and tail.

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MESSENGER Detects Comets ISON And Encke, Prepares For Closer Encounters

November 15, 2013 Leave a comment

NASA’s Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft has captured images of two comets — 2P/Encke and C/2012 S1 (ISON) — setting the stage for observations later this month when both comets will be substantially brighter and much closer to Mercury and the Sun.

ISON was discovered in September 2012 by amateur Russian astronomers, who observed with a 16-inch telescope that is part of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON), after which the comet was named. On November 28, ISON will fly within 700,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) of the Sun’s photosphere, at which time it is expected either to flare brilliantly or disintegrate.

As part of an ISON observation campaign involving ground- and space-based NASA observatories, as well as many other observatories around the world, MESSENGER has been poised for several weeks to collect observations of ISON. From November 9 through November 11, the probe’s Mercury Dual Instrument System (MDIS) captured its first images of the comet.

A few days earlier, from November 6 through November 8, MESSENGER’s imagers picked up its first snapshots of Encke. Unlike ISON, Encke has been known for quite a while. It was discovered in 1786 and recognized as a periodic comet in 1819. Its orbital period is 3.3 years — the shortest period of any known comet — and November 21 will mark its 62nd recorded perihelion.

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Comet ISON On Track For Thanksgiving Roasting, Possible Pre-Dawn Views In Early December

November 15, 2013 Leave a comment

A comet that’s caused a lot of excitement is racing toward a close encounter with the Sun on Thanksgiving Day, according to the editors of StarDate magazine. Comet ISON will pass about 700,000 miles above the Sun before whipping around and heading back toward deep space — if it survives. If it does, the comet could easily be visible to the unaided eye for a few weeks after the encounter.

An automated asteroid-hunting telescope, part of the International Scientific Optical Network (ISON) in Russia, discovered Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) on September 21, 2012. Some comet-watchers quickly suggested that it could become as bright as a full Moon late this year. Continued observations, however, show that it’s not brightening as much as those optimistic projections indicated.

However, the comet appears to be holding together as it approaches the Sun, suggesting that it could survive the solar encounter, probably its first.

The comet will get brighter as it approaches the Sun, but more difficult to see through the Sun’s glare. It will shine at its brightest as it passes the Sun, although it will be too close to the Sun to view safely.

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NASA’s Hubble Sees Comet ISON Intact

October 18, 2013 Leave a comment

 

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

A new image of the sunward plunging comet ISON suggests that the comet is intact despite some predictions that the fragile icy nucleus might disintegrate as the sun warms it. The comet will pass closest to the sun on Nov. 28.

In this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image taken on Oct. 9, the comet’s solid nucleus is unresolved because it is so small. If the nucleus broke apart then Hubble would have likely seen evidence for multiple fragments.

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Comet C/ISON Details Emerge As It Races Toward The Sun

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Scientists are unraveling more information on Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) as it continues on its journey toward the Sun. Comet C/ISON will skim 730,000 miles above the Sun’s surface on Nov. 28 and has the potential to be readily visible from Earth starting in early December.

“We measured the rotational pole of the nucleus. The pole indicates that only one side of the comet is being heated by the Sun on its way in until approximately one week before it reaches it closest point to the Sun,” said Planetary Science Institute Research Scientist Jian-Yang Li, who led a team that imaged the comet.

“Since the surface on the dark side of the comet should still retain a large fraction of very volatile materials, the sudden exposure to the strong sunlight when it gets closer to the Sun than Mercury could trigger huge outbursts of material,” Li said.

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First Ever Evidence Of A Comet Striking Earth

October 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Tutankhamun's brooch. (no copyright)

Tutankhamun’s brooch. (no copyright)

The first ever evidence of a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere and exploding, raining down a shock wave of fire which obliterated every life form in its path, has been discovered by a team of South African scientists and international collaborators, and will be presented at a public lecture on Thursday.

The discovery has not only provided the first definitive proof of a comet striking Earth, millions of years ago, but it could also help us to unlock, in the future, the secrets of the formation of our solar system.

“Comets always visit our skies – they’re these dirty snowballs of ice mixed with dust – but never before in history has material from a comet ever been found on Earth,” says Professor David Block of Wits University.

The comet entered Earth’s atmosphere above Egypt about 28 million years ago. As it entered the atmosphere, it exploded, heating up the sand beneath it to a temperature of about 2 000 degrees Celsius, and resulting in the formation of a huge amount of yellow silica glass which lies scattered over a 6 000 square kilometer area in the Sahara. A magnificent specimen of the glass, polished by ancient jewellers, is found in Tutankhamun’s brooch with its striking yellow-brown scarab.

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UMD-Led Deep Impact Ends, Leaves Bright Comet Tale

September 23, 2013 Leave a comment

NASA today announced the end of operations for the Deep Impact spacecraft, history’s most traveled deep-space comet hunter, after trying unsuccessfully for more than a month to regain contact with the spacecraft.

UMD scientists – who helped conceive the mission, bring it to reality and keep it going years longer than originally planned—say it is a big loss, but find great satisfaction that Deep Impact exceeded all expectations and that the science derived from it transformed our understanding of comets.

“The impact on comet Tempel 1, the flyby of comet Hartley 2, and the remote sensing of comet Garradd have led to so many surprising results that there is a complete rethinking of our understanding of the formation of comets and of how they work. These small, icy remnants of the formation of our solar system are much more varied, both one from another and even from one part to another of a single comet, than we had ever anticipated,” said University of Maryland astronomer Michael A’Hearn, who led the Deep Impact science team from the successful Deep Impact proposal to its unanticipated completion.

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