Hubble spots inbound comet 1.5 million miles away


An in-bound comet 1.5 billion miles from the sun has been pictured making the long journey from the edge of the solar system.

The miles-wide lump of frozen water, gas and dust photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope is the most distant active in-coming comet ever seen.

Known as C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) or ‘K2’, the comet has already been travelling for millions of years from its birthplace in the Oort Cloud, a shell of icy objects almost a light year across on the solar system’s outermost fringes.

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This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2), the farthest active comet ever observed entering the solar system. The image was taken in June 2017 by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2), the farthest active comet ever observed entering the solar system. The image was taken in June 2017 by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2), the farthest active comet ever observed entering the solar system. The image was taken in June 2017 by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3

THE K2 COMET 

K2 was discovered in May 2017 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) in Hawaii, a survey project of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observations Program.

Hubble’s sharp ‘eye’ revealed the extent of the coma and also helped Jewitt estimate the size of the nucleus — less than 12 miles across — though the tenuous coma is 10 Earth diameters across.

This vast coma must have formed when the comet was even farther away from the Sun.  

 

For the next five years it will continue into the inner solar system before reaching its closest approach to the sun just beyond the orbit of Mars. 

There is no chance of the comet colliding with Earth.

Because it is already being slightly warmed by the sun the comet has started to develop a coma, an 80,000 mile-wide fuzzy halo of dust enveloping its solid nucleus.

Hubble’s sharp ‘eye’ revealed the extent of the coma and also helped Jewitt estimate the size of the nucleus — less than 12 miles across — though the tenuous coma is 10 Earth diameters across. 

Lead researcher Dr David Jewitt, from the University of California at Los Angeles, said: ‘K2 is so far from the sun and so cold, we know for sure that the activity – all the fuzzy stuff making it look like a comet – is not produced, as in other comets, by the evaporation of water ice.

‘Instead, we think the activity is due to the sublimation (a solid changing directly into a gas) of super-volatiles as K2 makes its maiden entry into the solar system’s planetary zone.

‘That’s why it’s special. 

‘This comet is so far away and so incredibly cold that water ice there is frozen like a rock.’

The Hubble observations suggest that sunlight is heating frozen gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide that coat the comet’s frigid surface.

As the icy volatiles lift off the comet they release dust, forming the coma.

This illustration shows the orbit of comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2) on its maiden voyage into the solar system. The Hubble Space Telescope observed K2 when it was 1.5 billion miles from the Sun, halfway between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. The farthest object from the Sun depicted here is the dwarf planet Pluto, which resides in the Kuiper Belt, a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system.

This illustration shows the orbit of comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2) on its maiden voyage into the solar system. The Hubble Space Telescope observed K2 when it was 1.5 billion miles from the Sun, halfway between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. The farthest object from the Sun depicted here is the dwarf planet Pluto, which resides in the Kuiper Belt, a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system.

This illustration shows the orbit of comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2) on its maiden voyage into the solar system. The Hubble Space Telescope observed K2 when it was 1.5 billion miles from the Sun, halfway between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. The farthest object from the Sun depicted here is the dwarf planet Pluto, which resides in the Kuiper Belt, a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system.

Past studies of the composition of comets near the Sun have revealed the same mixture of volatile ices.

‘I think these volatiles are spread all through K2, and in the beginning billions of years ago, they were probably all through every comet presently in the Oort Cloud,’ said Dr Jewitt. ‘But the volatiles on the surface are the ones that absorb the heat from the sun, so, in a sense, the comet is shedding its outer skin.

‘Most comets are discovered much closer to the sun, near Jupiter’s orbit, so by the time we see them, these surface volatiles have already been baked off. That’s why I think K2 is the most primitive comet we’ve seen.’

From the Hubble images, the scientists estimate that the comet’s nucleus is less than 12 miles across.

K2 was discovered in May 2017 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PANSTARRS) in Hawaii, part of the American space agency Nasa’s Near-Earth Object Observations Programme.

 



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