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A comet close to the sun roasted to death

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Astronomers using a fleet of world-class telescopes on land and in space have captured images of a periodic rocky comet crashing close to the sun. This is the first time such a comet has been caught in the act of disintegrating and could help explain the rarity of such periodic comets near the Sun.

The solar system is a dangerous place. In the textbooks we see figures of celestial bodies orbiting the Sun in orderly orbits. But this is because if an object’s orbit does not match this pattern, the gravitational effects of other objects destabilize the orbit. A common fate for these ejected bodies is to become comets in orbits close to the Sun where they will eventually fall into the Sun. Because these comets pass so close to the Sun, they are difficult to spot and study. Most were discovered by chance during solar telescope observations. But even taking this difficulty into account, there are far fewer comets near the Sun than expected, indicating that something is destroying them before they have a chance to make their last fatal dip into the Sun.

To better understand these comets, a group of astronomers from Macau, the United States, Germany, Taiwan and Canada observed an elusive comet near the Sun called 323P / SOHO with several telescopes, including the Subaru Telescope, Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT ), the Gemini North Telescope, Lowell’s Discovery Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. 323P / SOHO’s orbit was poorly constrained, so the group didn’t know exactly where to look for it, but the Subaru telescope’s wide field of view allowed them to “launch a wide net” and find the comet on its approach. the Sun. It was the first time that 323P / SOHO had been captured by a terrestrial telescope. With this data, the researchers were able to better constrain the orbit, knew where to point other telescopes, and waited for 323P / SOHO to start moving away from the sun again.

To their surprise, the researchers found that 323P / SOHO changed dramatically during its close pass from the Sun. In the Subaru telescope data, 323P / SOHO was just one dot, but in the tracking data there was a long comet tail of ejected powder. The researchers believe that the intense solar radiation caused parts of the comet to rupture due to the thermal fracture, similar to how ice cubes break when poured over a hot drink. This mass-loss mechanism could help explain what happens to comets near the Sun and why so few remain.

But the team’s findings raised more questions than they answered. They found that the 323P / SOHO rotates rapidly, taking just over half an hour per revolution, and its color is unlike anything else in the solar system. Observations of other comets close to the Sun are needed to see if they also share these traits.

“We could not have made this discovery without the observations of the Maunakea telescopes, made possible by the University of Hawaii. said Man-To Hui, who was a researcher at the University of Hawaii at the time of the observations, and now an assistant professor at Macau University of Science and Technology, “The Subaru telescope observations were the initiator, reducing uncertainties in orbit and making follow-up observations possible CFHT provided the best coverage data and Gemini provided the densest data points.

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Materials provided by National Institutes of Natural Sciences. Note: The content can be changed by style and length.

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