This is one of the most volcanically active bodies in the Solar System, according to astronomers.
An amateur astronomer has recorded a series of four eruptions on Comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann.
It’s a 60-kilometer-wide ice ball orbiting the Sun, and it seems to be one of the Solar System’s most volcanically active bodies.
29P erupted four times in rapid succession in late September 2021, blasting shells of “cryomagma” into space.
Eliot Herman, an amateur astronomer from Arizona, has been keeping an eye on the debris:
“Initially it looked like a bright compact object,” said Herman. “Now the expanding cloud is 1.3 arcminutes wide (bigger than Jupiter) and sufficiently transparent for background stars to shine through.”
When this comet was discovered in 1927, astronomers assumed they had discovered a common comet. However, it was exceptional because it was locked in a nearly circular orbit between Jupiter and Saturn. 29P rapidly disproved them as it began to erupt repeatedly.
Outbursts can occur up to 20 times per year, according to modern observations (almost 3 times the rate of the widely-quoted Wikipedia figure, 7.3 times per year).
“The current outburst, which began on Sept. 25th, appears to be the most energetic of the past 40 years,” said Dr. Richard Miles of the British Astronomical Association (BAA). “Within a span of only 56 hours, four eruptions took place in quick succession, creating a ‘superoutburst.’”
Miles is a 29P researcher who has come up with a theory to explain what’s going on. He believes the “comet” is covered in ice volcanoes. There is no lava present.
The “magma” is a chilly mixture of liquid hydrocarbons (such as CH4, C2H4, C2H6, and C3H8) similar to those found in Saturn’s moon Titan’s lakes and streams. The cryomagma in Miles’ model contains a sprinkling of dust and is permeated with dissolved gases N2 and CO, all trapped beneath a surface that has the viscosity of wax in some spots.
When a crack is opened, these bottled-up volatiles love to explode–hence some of 29P’s more spectacular eruptions.
Miles investigated the modern record of eruptions and discovered some patterns in a major work published 5 years ago. According to data, 29P rotates every 57.7 days. In a range of longitudes smaller than 150 degrees wide, the most active vents are clustered on one side of the ice-ball. There are at least six distinct sources that have been recognized.
This superoutburst is still noticeable after typical outbursts go away after a week or so. The comet’s brightness was increased 250-fold by the rat-a-tat-tat explosion in September, and it hasn’t dropped much since then. The increasing cloud is well inside the range of backyard telescopes, with an integrated magnitude of +10 to +11.
“Comet 29P can be seen with an 8 inch ‘scope,” added Herman. “In smaller instruments it will appear to be a bright dot. To resolve the cloud and photograph individual stars shining through it, I used the big half-meter iTelescope T11.”
29P can be found in the constellation Auriga, high in the sky around midnight, and is simple to spot.
Image Credit: Getty
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