April 13, 2024

Cryovolcanic “Devil’s Comet” is now visible from Earth • Earth.com

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks – also known as the Devil’s Comet and the “Mother of Dragons” Comet – is currently visible in the night skies of the Northern Hemisphere, providing a unique spectacle for amateur observers and professional astronomers alike.

This Halley’s comet, which orbits the Sun every 71 years and has a nucleus about 30 kilometers in diameter, is known for its impressive explosions of gas and dust during its journeys through the interior of the solar system.

Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks

The comet is known as the devil’s comet due to its distinctive “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 through 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 inside it turning from solid to gaseous.

This process drives gas and dust from the comet’s surface and forms an expansive cloud and distinctive tail. This tail, shaped and driven by solar winds, serves as a visible marker of the comet’s trajectory 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 they also feature cryovolcanoes – volcanoes that erupt with volatile materials like water, ammonia or methane, rather than molten rock.

Cryovolcanoes form on comets when internal heat increases, causing volatile materials inside the comet to vaporize and expand. This increase in pressure eventually leads to the rupture of the comet’s surface, allowing gases and liquids to escape in a dramatic eruption.

Meaning of cryovolcanic activity

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

By analyzing materials ejected during cryovolcanic eruptions, scientists gain a better understanding of the conditions that exist in comets and the role they play in the formation and evolution of the solar system.

Notable examples

In addition to 12P/Pons-Brooks, one of the best-known examples of a cryovolcanic comet is 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1. This comet exhibits frequent explosions, 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 probe. Rosetta 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 the diabolical 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 level of activity and proximity to Earth.

While it can sometimes shine brightly, other times it can be barely noticeable. The Devil’s Comet will reach its closest point to Earth in June 2024, but will no longer be visible in 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 notable contributions to astronomy, most notably the discovery of 37 comets between 1801 and 1827 using equipment he built himself.

This achievement is a record unparalleled to this day. A notable example of his comet discoveries occurred on July 12, 1812, when he identified a faint celestial body without the comet’s characteristic tail.

During the following month, this body brightened significantly, developing a visible tail on August 15 of that year, marking its peak visibility. The comet’s orbit was calculated from Pons’ meticulous observations, with astronomers estimating the period of its solar orbit at 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 journey through the inner solar system on September 2, 1883.

Initially considered a new discovery, it was soon recognized as the comet previously observed by Pons 71 years earlier.

Vivid explosions of gas and dust

The Devil’s Comet has become particularly famous due to its vivid explosions of gas and dust during close approaches to the Sun, which were visible in the years 1883, 1954 and 2023.

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

Ancient cosmic icebergs

In addition to their immediately striking appearance, comets like 12P/Pons-Brooks are of significant scientific interest.

These “ancient cosmic icebergs” are remnants of the early solar system, and their compositions and trajectories offer clues about the early structure of the solar system.

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

Characteristic tails of comets

The characteristic tails of comets, resulting from the sublimation of ice into gas under the heat of the Sun, are perhaps their most striking feature.

These tails, composed of dust and ionized gas, are not only spectacular to observe, but are essential to our understanding of comet behavior and the impact of comets on Earth’s environment, including the potential supply 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’s 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 travelers.

In addition to 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 formation of the solar system, 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 get close to Halley’s Comet and provide the first close-up images of a comet’s nucleus.

Giotto’s trip revealed significant discoveries, 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 just 200 kilometers from its nucleus and further improving our understanding of the comet’s composition and behavior.

Rosetta Mission

Rosetta is considered ESA’s most famous cometary mission. By arriving close to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, Rosetta became the first spacecraft to orbit a comet and closely monitor its journey around the Sun.

The mission’s Philae lander achieved the first landing on the surface of a comet, providing invaluable data on the comet’s composition and activity. Rosetta’s extensive study of 67P provided profound insights into the nature of comets and their role in the history of the Solar System.

Hera Mission

Looking ahead, the Hera mission, scheduled 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 consequences of DART’s impact on the asteroid Dimorphos, with the aim of transforming 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 prospective Comet Interceptor mission, scheduled to launch in 2029, seeks to capture an early comet as it enters 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 look at the materials and conditions of the early Solar System.

By targeting such a “pristine” comet, Comet Interceptor hopes to build on Giotto and Rosetta’s legacy by providing new knowledge about the origins and evolution of our Solar System.

Special Mention – SOHO

Although primarily focused on solar observation, the ESA/NASA Solar Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) has become an unlikely comet hunter, discovering thousands of comets approaching the Sun on their final approach to the Sun. SOHO’s unexpected role in the discovery of comets highlights the dynamic and interconnected nature of our solar system’s celestial bodies.


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