April 13, 2024

Brighton Journal

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'Devilish Comet' with volcanic horns can now be seen from Earth • Earth.com

'Devilish Comet' with volcanic horns can now be seen from Earth • Earth.com

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks – also known as the “Devilish Comet” and the “Mother of Dragons” comet – is currently visible in the Northern Hemisphere's night sky, providing a unique sight for both amateur stargazers and professional astronomers.

This Halley-type comet, which orbits the sun every 71 years and has a nucleus about 30 kilometers in diameter, is known for its impressive explosions of gas and dust as it travels through the inner solar system.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks

The comet is known as Devil's Comet because of its distinctive “horned” appearance. However, a more contemporary cultural nod has been given to its association with the kappa-Draconids, a relatively modest annual meteor shower that is active from late November to December.

As with other comets, 12P/Pons-Brooks is composed of a mixture of ice, dust, and rocky material. As it approaches the sun, the comet undergoes a metamorphosis, as the ice inside it changes from a solid state to a gaseous state.

This process pushes gas and dust from the comet's surface and forms an expanding cloud and distinctive tail. This tail, formed and driven by the solar wind, serves as a visual marker of the comet's path through space.

What are icy volcanic comets?

Cryovolcanic comets are a fascinating class of celestial objects that exhibit unique geological activity. These comets contain not only the usual mix of ice, dust and rock, but also cryovolcanoes, which are volcanoes that erupt with volatile materials such as water, ammonia or methane instead of molten rock.

Cryovolcanoes form on comets when internal heat builds up, causing volatiles inside the comet to evaporate and expand. This increased pressure eventually ruptures the comet's surface, allowing gases and liquids to escape in a dramatic explosion.

The importance of cryovolcanic activity

The study of icy volcanic comets provides valuable insights into the composition and internal structure of these icy bodies.

By analyzing material ejected during cryovolcanic eruptions, scientists are gaining a better understanding of the conditions inside comets and the role they play in the formation and evolution of the solar system.

Notable examples

Besides 12P/Pons-Brooks, one of the most famous examples of icy volcanic comets is 12P/Pons-Brooks 29b/Shoasmann-Wachmann 1. This comet displays frequent explosions, which are believed to be caused by cryovolcanic activity.

Another example is Comet 67P/Churyumov-GerasimenkoWhich was visited by the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta's observations revealed evidence of cold volcanic activity on the comet's surface.

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As we continue to explore and study these attractive objects, icy volcanic comets will undoubtedly shed more light on the dynamic processes that shape our solar system.

When will the diabolical comet 12P/Pons-Brooks be visible?

12P/Pons-Brooks is most visible in late March and early April. The comet is located above the western horizon in the hours after dusk, and the visibility of the comet is subject to its level of activity and its proximity to Earth.

While sometimes it may shine brightly, other times, it may be barely perceptible. Satan's Comet will reach its closest point to Earth in June 2024, but it will no longer be visible from the Northern Hemisphere.

Two legendary astronomers

The comet's name carries the legacy of two legendary figures, Jean-Louis Pons and William R. Brooks, who discovered a huge number of comets.

Jean-Louis Pons

Pons, a French astronomer active from 1761 to 1831, is remembered for his remarkable contributions to astronomy, most notably his discovery of 37 comets between 1801 and 1827 using equipment he built himself.

This achievement remains an unparalleled record to this day. One notable example of his comet discoveries was on July 12, 1812, when he identified a faint celestial body that lacked the distinctive comet tail.

Over the next month, this object brightened noticeably, and its tail appeared by August 15 of that year, marking its peak visibility. The comet's orbit was calculated from Pons's precise observations, and astronomers estimate the period of its solar orbit to be between 65 and 75 years.

In loco parentis. Brooks

William R. confirmed Brooks, an Anglo-American astronomer with an impressive record of 27 comet discoveries, inadvertently contradicted Pons' earlier observations when he observed the same comet during its return journey through the inner solar system on September 2, 1883.

Initially thought to be a new discovery, it was soon identified as the comet observed by Pons 71 years earlier.

Live explosions of gas and dust

Comet Satan became particularly famous for its powerful explosions of gas and dust as it approached the Sun, which were visible in 1883, 1954, and 2023.

Historical accounts of bright celestial objects seen in China in 1385 and Italy in 1457 are believed to be earlier sightings of this comet, cementing its place in the annals of astronomical observation.

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Ancient cosmic icebergs

In addition to their impressive appearance, comets like 12P/Pons-Brooks are of great scientific interest.

These “ancient cosmic icebergs” are remnants from the dawn of the solar system, and their compositions and paths provide clues about the structure of the early solar system.

The processes by which comets are pulled toward the inner planets from outside Neptune's orbit highlight their dynamic nature and the gravitational forces they play within our cosmic neighborhood.

Characteristic tails of comets

Comets' distinctive tails, caused by ice sublimating into gas under the warmth of the Sun, are perhaps their most defining feature.

These tails, made up of dust and ionized gas, are not only fascinating to observe, but are integral to our understanding of comet behavior and the impact of comets on Earth's environment, including potentially delivering water and organic matter to our planet.

Observing and studying comets

As 12P/Pons-Brooks remains visible from Earth and continues its journey through the inner solar system, Comet Satan serves as a reminder of the vast, dynamic universe of which we are a small part.

It also emphasizes the importance of continuous observation and study of comets, because they hold the key to understanding our place in the universe and the fundamental processes that shaped our solar system.

European Space Agency missions to uncover the secrets of comets

the European Space Agency The European Space Agency (ESA) has long recognized the scientific and exploratory value of these ancient celestial rovers.

Beyond Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, the European Space Agency has embarked on several missions to uncover the secrets of comets and asteroids.

The goal is to shed light on the early formation of the solar system, the origins of water on Earth, and the potential dangers these space rocks pose to our planet. Some of these tasks include:

Giotto's mission

Launched in 1986, Gioto is ESA's pioneering deep space mission, designed to approach Comet Halley and provide the first close-up images of the comet's nucleus.

Giotto's mission revealed important findings, including the discovery of organic materials on Halley's Comet, indicating the complex chemistry of the early solar system.

The mission's success did not end with Haley; In 1992, Giotto was redirected to approach Comet Grigg-Skjellerup, passing within just 200 km of its nucleus, enhancing our understanding of comet formation and behavior.

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Rosetta mission

Rosetta is ESA's most famous comet mission. Arriving near Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and closely follow its journey around the Sun.

The mission's Philae lander achieved the first-ever landing on the surface of a comet, providing invaluable data on the comet's composition and activity. Rosetta's expanded study of 67P has provided profound insights into the nature of comets and their role in the history of the solar system.

Hera's mission

Looking to the future, the Hera mission, scheduled to launch in the near future, is part of a collaborative effort with NASA's DART mission to test asteroid deflection techniques. Hera will closely examine the effects of DART's impact on the asteroid Demorphos, with the aim of turning this experiment into a viable planetary defense strategy.

By studying Dimorphos' changing orbit and surface, Hera will play a crucial role in preparing humanity to defend itself against potential asteroid threats.

Comet objection

ESA's forward-looking Comet Interceptor mission, scheduled to launch in 2029, seeks to capture a progenitor comet entering the inner solar system for the first time. This mission aims to study a comet that has been slightly altered by the Sun's heat, which could provide a direct glimpse into the materials and conditions that existed in the early solar system.

By targeting such a “pristine” comet, Comet Interceptor hopes to build on the legacy of Giotto and Rosetta, providing new insights into the origins and evolution of our solar system.

Special mention – Soho

While primarily focused on observing solar energy, ESA/NASA's Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has become an unlikely comet hunter, discovering thousands of comets grazing the Sun on its final approach to the Sun. SOHO's unexpected role in discovering comets highlights the dynamic and interconnected nature of celestial bodies in our solar system.

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