Article image

Colossal cryovolcanic comet explodes again as it heads towards Earth

The colossal, cryovolcanic “devil comet,” three times larger than Mount Everest, has experienced yet another explosive event as it makes its way toward Earth. The comet, also known as 12P/Pons-Brooks, earned its nickname after two devil-like horns appeared during previous outbursts.

12P/Pons-Brooks has massive outburst

Just two days ago, 12P/Pons-Brooks exploded for the fourth time. Experts say the comet released the largest outburst yet, abruptly brightening by more than 100 times. 

According to experts, the devil comet became as bright as the Elliptical Galaxy – which is located 600 million light years from Earth.

Increasing activity

Eliot Herman, an amateur astronomer based in Arizona, has been tracking the cryovolcanic comet. He shared in a post: “Comet 12P appears to be manifesting more frequent outbursts, a new outburst only two weeks from the prior outburst is now apparent.”

This “cold volcano” comet, approximately 18 miles in diameter, is notorious for its violent ejections of ice and gas. This activity created the trail that resembled devil horns, making it a fascinating spectacle in space.

Closest approach of 12P/Pons-Brooks

Discovered in 1812, 12P/Pons-Brooks is on a trajectory that will bring it closest to Earth in June 2024. Despite its proximity, it poses no threat to our planet. During this approach, it will be visible as a faint, star-like object with a distinct tail, even to the naked eye.

Cryovolcanic comet behavior 

Comets like 12P/Pons-Brooks are made up of an icy nucleus surrounded by a coma – a cloud of gas and dust. Its classification as a cryovolcanic comet indicates that it exhibits volcanic behavior. 

However, instead of ejecting molten rock, it releases gasses and ice, particularly when nearing the sun. As the comet approaches the sun, the increase in temperature and pressure leads to explosive releases of nitrogen and carbon monoxide, pushing out icy fragments from the nucleus.

Dramatic brightening 

Herman had previously observed a dramatic brightening of the comet on October 31, indicating a fresh burst of cryovolcanic activity. That outburst marked the second in a month and the third since July.

12P/Pons-Brooks orbits the sun, attracted by its gravitational pull, and completes this journey in 71 years. This period is relatively short compared to most comets, which may take thousands of years to orbit the sun. 

Highly elliptical orbits

Comets like 12P/Pons-Brooks have highly elliptical orbits, bringing them close to the sun at perihelion and far away at aphelion. As they near the sun, their speed increases significantly.

Currently, the devil comet is hurtling towards the sun at over 40,000 miles per hour. This speed is expected to increase to over 100,000 miles per hour as it approaches its perihelion. 

Its closest encounter with the sun will occur on April 21 next year, followed by a close approach to Earth on June 2. After this encounter, the comet will be propelled back to the outer solar system, not returning until 2095.

More about comets

Comets offer a fascinating insight into the early solar system and the origins of life. These celestial bodies primarily consist of frozen gases, rock, and dust.

As a comet approaches the Sun, its ice warms and vaporizes, releasing gas and dust that form a glowing head known as the coma. Radiation pressure and solar winds blow this material away, forming the comet’s characteristic tails. 

There are typically two tails. The first is a dust tail (curved and yellowish). The second is an ion tail (straight and bluish), pointing away from the Sun.

Life’s building blocks

Astronomers believe that comets are remnants from the early solar system, formed over 4.5 billion years ago. Scientists refer to them as “icy time capsules.”

They mainly consist of water ice, along with frozen carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and ammonia. Mixed within this icy conglomerate are dust and rocky particles, making them like dirty snowballs.

Types of comets

Short-period comets have orbits that last less than 200 years. They often originate from the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune filled with icy bodies.

Long-period comets have orbits extending over 200 years. Astronomers believe they come from the Oort Cloud, a distant spherical shell surrounding the solar system.

More about cryovolcanic comets

Cryovolcanic comets, like 12P/Pons-Brooks discussed above, embody a unique phenomenon in our solar system. Unlike typical comets, primarily composed of ice, dust, and small rock particles, cryovolcanic comets harbor a remarkable feature: cryovolcanoes.

A cryovolcano, or an ice volcano, differs fundamentally from its terrestrial counterpart. Rather than spewing molten rock, these icy giants eject plumes of volatile substances like water, ammonia, or methane. These eruptions occur when the internal heat of the comet, often generated by radioactive decay or tidal interactions with a larger body, melts its subsurface ice. The pressure builds up until it finds a weak spot in the comet’s crust, leading to a spectacular outburst.

Remnants of our early solar system

The study of cryovolcanic comets provides invaluable insights into the early solar system. These comets are often considered pristine remnants from the era of planet formation, harboring materials that have remained largely unchanged for billions of years. Analyzing the composition of their ejecta can reveal secrets about the solar system’s infancy and the origin of water and organic compounds on Earth.

Significantly, cryovolcanic activity can dramatically alter a comet’s trajectory. As they eject material, they experience a reactive force, akin to a rocket’s thrust, which can change their orbit. This phenomenon makes predicting their paths more challenging, but also more exciting for astronomers.

Still much to learn about cryovolcanic comets

Furthermore, these comets serve as natural laboratories for studying extreme conditions. The interplay between their icy composition and the vacuum of space creates environments not replicable on Earth. Scientists believe that understanding these conditions could provide clues to extraterrestrial life and the adaptability of life in harsh environments.

In summary, cryovolcanic comets are not just cosmic spectacles but are key to unlocking many mysteries of our solar system. Their study bridges our understanding from the formation of celestial bodies to the potential for life beyond Earth, making them a cornerstone in the field of planetary science and astrobiology.

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day