Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks (12P) is currently embarking on its 71-year orbit through the solar system, and a remarkable sight awaits astronomers and sky-watchers alike. In a rare and astonishing eruption, 12P has transformed into a captivating celestial spectacle, featuring striking “horns.”
As a cryovolcanic comet, 12P is distinct from its comet counterparts. Its icy nucleus contains a mixture of ice, dust, and gas, surrounded by a hazy cloud of gas called a coma. Unlike most other comets, 12P experiences significant gas and ice buildup within its nucleus, leading to sporadic and explosive outbursts. These eruptions release its icy contents, known as cryomagma, through cracks in its shell.
Recently, on July 20, astronomers were astounded as 12P underwent a major outburst, shining approximately 100 times brighter than usual. The expansion of the coma released gas and ice crystals from the comet’s interior, brilliantly reflecting sunlight back to Earth.
What makes this event truly exceptional is the peculiar and intriguing shape of the expanded coma, resembling the appearance of “horns.” Some experts have even likened the comet’s deformed shape to the iconic Millennium Falcon spaceship from Star Wars. This distinct feature likely results from an irregularity in 12P’s nucleus. The outflowing gas encountered partial obstruction from an out-sticking lobe, giving rise to a prominent “notch” in the coma. As the gas continues to disperse, this intriguing “shadow” becomes more apparent. However, the expanded coma will eventually dissipate as the gas and ice disperse, no longer reflecting sunlight.
This rare eruption marks the first major event detected from 12P in nearly seven decades, mainly due to its distant orbit, which often conceals its outbursts from Earth’s view. With one of the longest known orbital periods, approximately 71 years, 12P’s closest approach to Earth is set for June 2, 2024. This presents a unique opportunity for Earthlings to potentially witness future eruptions and marvel at the wonders of our universe.
Beyond 12P, scientists have observed significant eruptions from other volatile comets, such as 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann (29P). In December 2022, astronomers witnessed 29P’s most substantial eruption in about 12 years, releasing around 1 million tons of cryomagma into space. Additionally, in April of this year, scientists achieved an unprecedented feat by accurately predicting one of 29P’s eruptions. The observation of a slight increase in brightness indicated heightened gas leakage from the comet’s nucleus as it readied for eruption.
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