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A bizarre volcanic comet exploded violently, spewing more than 1 million tons of gas, ice, and “potential life building blocks” onto Earth. solar system.
Known as 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann (29P), the volatile comet is about 37 miles (60 kilometers) wide and completes its orbit in about 14.9 years. sun. 29P is believed to be the most volcanically active comet in the solar system. One of about 100 comets known as “centaurs” pushed out of the Kuiper Belt – a ring of icy comets that lurk beyond. Neptune – to a closer orbit among those around the sun Jupiter and by Neptune NASA (opens in new tab).
On November 22, Patrick Wiggins, an amateur astronomer, noticed that 29P’s brightness had increased significantly. space weather.com (opens in new tab). Subsequent observations by other astronomers revealed that this increase in brightness was the result of the second largest major volcanic eruption seen at 29P in the past 12 years. British Astronomical Society (opens in new tab) (BAA). During this time there was the biggest explosion. Big bang in September 2021.
An explosion of this size is “quite rare”. Cai Stoddard-Jones (opens in new tab)A doctoral candidate at Cardiff University in England who took follow-up footage of 29P’s eruption told Live Scence. “Her [also] It’s hard to say why it’s so big.”
Two smaller eruptions followed on November 27 and November 29, according to the BAA.
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Unlike volcanoes on Earth that spew scorching hot magma and ash from the mantle, 29P emits extremely cold gases and ice from its core. This unusual type of volcanic activity is known as cryovolcanism or “cold volcanism.”
Frozen volcanic bodies, which include a handful of other comets and moons in the solar system, such as Saturn’s Enceladus, Jupiter’s Europa, and Neptune’s Triton, essentially have a surface crust surrounding a solid icy core. Richard Miles (opens in new tab)A BAA astronomer with 29P training told Live Science. Over time, radiation from the sun can cause the icy interiors of comets to sublimate from solid to gas, causing a pressure build-up below the crust. When radiation from the sun also weakens the shell, this pressure causes the outer shell to crack and the cryomagma is blasted into space.
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NASA representatives wrote that cryomagma from comets like 29P consists mainly of carbon monoxide and nitrogen gas, as well as some icy solids and liquid hydrocarbons, which “may have provided some of the raw materials from which life arose on Earth.”
The cryomagma from 29P’s most recent eruption extended 34,800 miles (56,000 km) from the comet and is traveling at an estimated speed of about 805 mph (1,295 km/h), according to the BAA. Miles added that the smoke “probably contains more than a million tons of ejectants.”
According to Spaceweather.com, photos of the exploding comet also show the smoke forming an irregular Pac-Man-like shape; which indicates that the explosion originated from a single spot or region on the comet’s surface.
These observations support previous research suggesting that 29P’s eruptions are linked to its rotation. Miles and Stoddard-Jones believe that the comet’s slower rotation causes solar radiation to be absorbed more irregularly on the comet, triggering the explosions. So far, bursts from the comet have tended to match the 57-day rotation period, the researchers said.
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Researchers also suspect that 29P’s most explosive eruptions follow a cycle based on its orbit around the sun. A series of major eruptions were detected between 2008 and 2010, and now two major eruptions have occurred in the past two years, Miles said. Therefore, at least one more major eruption from 29P is likely by the end of 2023, he added.
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How this longer burst cycle occurs, however, is less clear because unlike most other comets that approach the sun during a certain period of their orbit, 29P has a largely circular orbit, meaning it never gets too close to the sun. Stoddard-Jones said it’s more than average distance.
Miles said 29P has been largely ignored by the astronomical community since its discovery in 1927, but is starting to be taken more seriously as new evidence of its unusual volcanic activity emerges. “Clearly there is something new to discover in studying 29P.”
this James Webb Space Telescope He added that he will take a closer look at the 29P early next year.