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Cryovolcanic "Mother of Dragons" devil comet is now visible from Earth

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks — also known as the “devil comet” and the “Mother of Dragons” comet — is currently visible in the night skies of the northern hemisphere, providing a unique spectacle 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 outbursts of gas and dust during its voyages through the inner solar system.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks

The comet is known as the devil comet due to its distinct “horned” appearance. However, a more contemporary cultural nod has been given to its connection with the kappa-Draconids, a relatively modest annual meteor shower active from late November into December.

Similar to 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 transformation, with the ice within transitioning from solid to gas.

This process propels gas and dust from the comet’s surface and forms an expansive cloud and a distinctive tail. This tail, shaped and driven by solar winds, serves as a visible marker of the comet’s path through space.

What are cryovolcanic comets?

Cryovolcanic comets are a fascinating class of celestial objects that exhibit unique geological activity.

These comets not only contain the usual mix of ice, dust, and rock but also feature cryovolcanoes — 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 the volatile materials within the comet to vaporize and expand.

This increased pressure eventually leads to the rupture of the comet’s surface, allowing the gases and liquids to escape in a dramatic eruption.

Significance of cryovolcanic activity

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

By analyzing the materials ejected during cryovolcanic eruptions, scientists gain a better understanding of the conditions that exist within 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 well-known examples of a cryovolcanic comet is 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1. This comet exhibits frequent outbursts, which are believed to be caused by cryovolcanic activity.

Another example is Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which was visited by the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft. Rosetta’s observations revealed evidence of cryovolcanic activity on the comet’s surface.

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

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

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

While at times it may shine brightly, at others, it could be barely perceptible. The devil comet will reach its closest point to Earth in June 2024, but 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 an impressive 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 for discovering 37 comets between 1801 and 1827 using equipment he crafted himself.

This achievement stands as an unmatched record to this day. One notable instance of his comet discoveries occurred on July 12, 1812, when he identified a faint celestial body lacking the characteristic comet tail. 

Over the following month, this body brightened significantly, developing a visible tail by August 15 of that year, marking its peak visibility. The comet’s orbit was calculated from Pons’ meticulous observations, with astronomers estimating its solar orbit period to be between 65 and 75 years. 

William R. Brooks

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

Initially believed to be a new discovery, it was soon recognized as the comet previously observed by Pons 71 years before.

Vivid outbursts of gas and dust

The devil comet became particularly famous due to its vivid outbursts of gas and dust during close approaches to the Sun, which were visible in the years 1883, 1954, and 2023. 

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

Ancient cosmic icebergs 

Beyond their immediate impressive appearance, comets like 12P/Pons-Brooks are of significant scientific interest.

These “ancient cosmic icebergs” are remnants from the dawn of the solar system, their compositions and trajectories offering clues about the early solar system’s structure. 

The processes by which comets are drawn toward the inner planets from beyond Neptune’s orbit highlight their dynamic nature and the gravitational forces at play within our cosmic neighborhood.

Characteristic tails of comets

The characteristic tails of comets, resulting from the sublimation of ice to gas under the Sun’s warmth, are perhaps their most defining feature.

These tails, comprising both dust and ionized gas, are not just spectacular to observe but are integral to our understanding of cometary behavior and the impact of comets on Earth’s environment, including the potential delivery of water and organic materials to our planet.

Observation and study of comets

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

It also underscores the importance of continued observation and study of comets, as they hold the key to understanding our place in the cosmos and the fundamental processes that have shaped our solar system.

ESA missions to unlock the secrets of comets 

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

Beyond comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, ESA has embarked on several missions to unlock the secrets of comets and asteroids.

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

Giotto Mission 

Launched in 1986, Giotto was ESA’s pioneering deep-space mission, designed to approach comet Halley and provide the first close-up images of a comet’s nucleus. 

Giotto’s journey revealed significant findings, including the detection of organic material on Halley’s comet, hinting at the complex chemistry of the early solar system. 

The mission’s success didn’t end with Halley; in 1992, Giotto was redirected to approach comet Grigg-Skjellerup, passing within just 200 kilometers of its nucleus and further enhancing our understanding of cometary composition and behavior.

Rosetta Mission 

Rosetta is considered to be 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 a comet’s surface, providing invaluable data on the comet’s composition and activity. Rosetta’s extensive study of 67P has offered profound insights into the nature of comets and their role in the solar system’s history.

Hera Mission 

Looking ahead, the Hera mission, set 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 aftermath of DART’s impact on the asteroid Dimorphos, aiming to turn this experiment into a viable planetary defense strategy. 

By studying the altered orbit and surface of Dimorphos, Hera will play a critical role in preparing humanity to defend itself against potential asteroid threats.

Comet Interceptor 

ESA’s forward-looking Comet Interceptor mission, set to launch in 2029, seeks to capture a pristine comet entering the inner solar system for the first time.

This mission aims to study a comet that has been minimally altered by the Sun’s heat, potentially offering a direct glimpse into the materials and conditions of 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 solar observation, the ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has become an unlikely comet hunter, discovering thousands of Sun-grazing comets on their final approach to the Sun.

In March 2024, SOHO discovered its 5000th comet. SOHO’s unexpected role in comet discovery highlights the dynamic and interconnected nature of our solar system’s celestial bodies.


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