A massive cryovolcanic comet, three times the size of Mount Everest, has burst into space and is now speeding towards Earth, scientists report. However, there is no cause for alarm: the comet will not collide with us. Instead, it is expected to be visible to the naked eye around its nearest point to Earth on April 21, 2024.
This celestial body, designated 12P/Pons-Brooks, is a cryovolcanic comet. Such comets are intriguing; they have a solid core that spans an impressive 18.6 miles (30 km) and consist of a mix of ice, dust, and gasses.
These components can be likened to the carbonation in a soda bottle. When the sun warms the comet, the pressure within the cryomagma mounts until it prompts nitrogen and carbon monoxide to burst forth, releasing icy fragments through expansive fissures in the comet’s outer layer.
Remarkably, this explosive event marks the second occurrence for Pons-Brooks within a span of just four months.
Through telescopic views, this repeated explosion has given the comet an appearance reminiscent of massive horns. Some even note that its shape eerily mirrors the iconic Millennium Falcon ship from the Star Wars franchise.
In terms of size, this comet stands on par with the renowned Halley’s comet. The last time it was visible to Earthlings without telescopic aid was back in 1954. Due to its 71-year sun orbit, it is termed a ‘Halley-type comet.’
For context, the legendary Halley’s comet takes approximately 75 years for its solar orbit, while most comets typically require thousands of years.
As Pons-Brooks approaches its nearest point to Earth in April 2024, sky watchers may also get a treat in May and June 2024, with its peak brilliance predicted for June 2, 2024.
After this close encounter, the comet will embark on a journey back to the distant parts of our solar system, with its next anticipated return in 2095.
Currently, for those eager to spot Pons-Brooks, the comet is located within the Hercules constellation. Observers should gaze in the East-North-East direction, approximately 36 degrees above the horizon. As it continues its voyage towards our planet, further eruptions, potentially of even greater magnitude, are anticipated.
However, Pons-Brooks is not the most tempestuous volcanic comet in our cosmic neighborhood. That title goes to 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann, which circles the sun just past Jupiter at an astounding 26,000 miles per hour.
This 37 mile-wide (60km) icy behemoth is believed to erupt roughly 20 times annually. In a spectacular display, December 2022 saw 29P showcase its mightiest eruption in approximately 12 years, ejecting around one million tons of cryomagma into the cosmos.
Cryovolcanism, a fascinating geological phenomenon, refers to the eruption of volatiles such as water, methane, or ammonia instead of molten rock. When this occurs on comets, such as with 12p/Pons-Brooks discussed above, it leads to spectacular space vistas and offers unique insights into these celestial objects.
Cryovolcanic comets, while not as commonly discussed as their traditional counterparts, play a pivotal role in our ongoing exploration and understanding of the solar system’s outer realms.
As discussed previously, cryovolcanic comets originate in the cold outer regions of the solar system, where temperatures are low enough for volatile compounds to freeze. These comets harbor mixtures of water ice, ammonia, methane, and other frozen gases alongside dust and rock particles.
The exciting discovery of cryovolcanism on comets owes much to the advancements in space exploration technology. High-resolution imaging and spectral analysis from missions like NASA’s Deep Impact have allowed scientists to observe these icy eruptions in detail.
The cryovolcanism observed on comets is a process governed by both internal and external factors. As a cryovolcanic comet approaches the Sun, solar heating causes its surface temperature to rise. This heat penetrates the comet’s crust, causing the frozen volatiles beneath to sublimate. The pressure from these gasified materials builds up until it cracks the surface, spewing gas and icy particles into space, creating a miniature version of volcanic eruptions seen on Earth.
The expelled material forms a cloudy envelope known as a coma around the comet’s nucleus, and solar radiation pressure shapes it into the beautiful tails characteristic of comets. These dynamic and dramatic events transform the comet’s physical structure, sometimes reforming its surface with each orbit around the Sun.
Cryovolcanic comets serve as cosmic laboratories, offering a glimpse into the early solar system’s conditions. The volatile compounds released during cryovolcanic eruptions are primordial in nature, preserved in the comet’s icy heart since the solar system’s formation.
Analyzing these materials helps scientists understand the building blocks of solar systems and potentially uncover whether comets played a role in delivering life-sustaining water and organic compounds to Earth.
The intrigue surrounding cryovolcanic comets has spurred proposals for future space missions. Scientists aim to land probes on these comets, study cryovolcanic activity up close, and even return samples to Earth for detailed analysis. Such missions could provide unprecedented information about the solar system’s formation and evolution, the conditions that lead to cryovolcanism, and the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial organisms in the icy eruptions.
Cryovolcanic comets challenge our traditional notions of volcanic activity and expand our understanding of geological phenomena beyond Earth. They remind us of the universe’s vastness and diversity, highlighting that even familiar processes like volcanism can take on extraordinary forms in extraterrestrial environments. By continuing to study and explore these icy wanderers, humanity could solve some of the most profound mysteries about the cosmos and our place within it.
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