Look up to see ‘Devil’s Comet’ now and during the total eclipse

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An unusual horned comet, notable for a series of recent outbursts, will be visible in the night sky for the rest of March, and astronomers expect the so-called devil’s comet to make a rare appearance during the month of March. total solar eclipse on April 8.

Exactly why the dynamic comet adopts a shape that has drawn comparisons to the Millennium Falcon spacecraft from the “Star Wars” movies when it is explosively active remains a puzzle for scientists. But the celestial object only completes one orbit around the Sun approximately every 71 years, similar to Halley’s Comet, making the chances of observing it for up-close study a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Since the comet will not pass Earth again for decades, astronomers’ collective observations could provide key information about the true nature and behavior of Pons-Brooks.

Officially known as comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, the celestial object will make its closest pass to the sun on April 21, coming within 74.4 million miles (119.7 million kilometers). of our star. The comet will then make its closest pass to Earth on June 2, but it will be 224.4 million kilometers (139.4 million miles) from our planet and will not pose a risk.

For those in the northern hemisphere, the last 10 days of March will offer the best view, according to Dr. Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies, and Davide Farnocchia, navigation engineer, at the Propulsion Laboratory a NASA Jet in Pasadena, California.

“The comet will brighten slightly as it approaches the Sun, and should be visible to the naked eye in the west about an hour after sunset,” according to a joint email from Chodas and Farnocchia. “You should go somewhere away from the city lights and with a clear view of the western horizon. “It would be advisable to use a pair of binoculars, as without them it may be difficult to locate the comet.”

After April 2, the comet is on track to move into the daytime sky and will not be visible to nighttime skywatchers, but will be visible when the moon’s shadow temporarily blocks view of the sun on April 8.

“The comet would be located about 25 degrees from the eclipsed sun,” Chodas and Farnocchia said by email. “The comet should be fairly easy to find during the total solar eclipse, as should several planets, but the main focus during those 4 minutes should be on the eclipse itself!”

After the comet’s closest approach to the Sun, known as perihelion, the celestial body will move into the southern night sky at the end of April and will only be visible to those in the southern hemisphere.

Two prolific discoverers, Jean-Louis Pons and William Robert Brooks, independently observed Comet Diablo for the first time in 1812. But the comet likely made many trips around the Sun over thousands of years, long before that astronomers thought of comets like anything else. “something strange in the atmosphere,” said Dr. Dave Schleicher, an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Arizona.

Astronomers estimate the huge comet is between 10 and 20 kilometers (6.2 and 12.4 miles) in diameter, said astronomer Dr. Teddy Kareta, a postdoctoral associate at Lowell Observatory.

The rare visitor has a green appearance typical of most comets because they contain diatomic carbon molecules that absorb sunlight and emit a color that appears green from our perspective, Schleicher said.

Pons-Brooks recently caught the attention of astronomers after exhibiting intriguing behavior that caused the comet to appear horn-like and soar through our solar system.

The comet has experienced a series of explosions over the past eight months, expelling gas and dust. While such releases are not uncommon in comets and a crescent or Pac-Man shape has been observed in others, it is difficult to say what is normal for Pons-Brooks.

“I would say it’s unusual because of the number of outbursts he’s had,” Schleicher said. “On the other hand, it’s not like you have good records from the past that allow you to really know what is typical. And I suspect that, given the large number of outbursts that have occurred in the last eight months, this is clearly a regular occurrence for Pons-Brooks.”

Gianluca Masi/Virtual Telescope Project

The Virtual Telescope Project captured a view of the comet over Manciano, in the Italian region of Tuscany, under the peninsula’s darkest sky.

Comets are chunks of dust, rock and ice, essentially frozen remnants of the formation of the solar system. They also contain frozen elements such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Comets warm up and brighten as they approach the Sun, and some of the frozen gases stored in comets don’t need to heat up much before they start turning into vapor, Schleicher said.

“We think the determining factor, of course, is warming caused by the sun,” he said. “The comet is approaching; It’s been frozen for years. “The heat will work its way from the surface to wherever the carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide ice is.”

Astronomers suspect that the Pons-Brooks outbursts have occurred over the course of repeated events as heat vaporizes material inside the comet, causing pressure to build up and break through the surface. While a gas explosion would not be visible with telescopes, the dust it kicks up would create the type of events observed from Pons-Brooks, Schleicher said.

Scientists have traced the jets of material observed being released from the comet during its explosion to two source regions on its surface. Astronomers wonder why “the entire surface isn’t just blowing up like crazy,” Schleicher said.

The observations imply that ice has formed on most of the surface, or that the ice has vaporized, leaving only dirt, but astronomers “aren’t quite sure which of those mechanisms controls the show,” he said.

A series of overlapping events likely “It has contributed to the distinctive look of Pons-Brooks, but it could also be due to our view of the comet,” Kareta said.

“These are three-dimensional objects,” Kareta said. “When we take images of the night sky, we take them in a limited range of colors, all flattened in two dimensions. “This will make things that might make a lot of sense to you, if you’re able to walk around and see them from a couple different perspectives, seem much more complicated than they really are.”

Astronomers are observing Pons-Brooks in hopes of discovering more details about its rotation speed, or the speed at which comets spin as they move through space. Pons-Brooks has a rotation period of 57 hours, longer than expected, and astronomers want to know if the jets of material released by the comet are accelerating or decelerating it.

But Schleicher recommends keeping an eye out for the comet now and not during the eclipse.

“In all my years, I have seen many comets. I have only seen two total eclipses, and this will be number 3. The first one I saw was in 1991, from Baja. And that was just extraordinary. I remember realizing that it’s no wonder this is considered the most magnificent sight in the heavens that anyone on Earth can see. Get on the road and see it in its entirety. “You don’t understand it until you see one.”

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