Devil Comet Approaches Earth for Closest Encounter in 71 Years

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By Lydia Amazouz Published on June 1, 2024 14:30
Devil Comet Approaches Earth For Closest Encounter In 71 Years

The devil comet, an unusual comet with a horned appearance, is set to make its closest approach to Earth on Sunday, June 2. Known scientifically as Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, this celestial body has garnered attention for its distinctive shape and recent bursts of activity.

The Devil Comet's Characteristics and Orbit

The devil comet, officially named Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks, is an extraordinary celestial object that has captivated astronomers with its unusual behavior and distinctive appearance. Discovered independently by two prolific astronomers, Jean-Louis Pons in 1812 and William Robert Brooks in 1883, the comet’s dual discovery led to its full designation. Its nickname, "devil comet," comes from its horned appearance during outbursts, reminiscent of the Millennium Falcon spacecraft from the “Star Wars” films.

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Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks has an orbital period of approximately 71 years, placing it in the category of periodic comets, which are defined by their regular returns to the inner solar system. This long orbital period means that each approach is a significant event, both for professional astronomers and for skywatchers. Unlike shorter-period comets that are frequently observed and well-documented, the devil comet provides rare opportunities for detailed study, as it will only be visible a few times in a human lifetime.

The comet's orbit brings it relatively close to the sun and then swings it back into the far reaches of the solar system. On its current journey, the comet made its closest approach to the sun on April 21, 2024, at a distance of 74.4 million miles (119.7 million kilometers). This perihelion passage heated the comet, causing its icy components to sublimate and release gas and dust, forming the characteristic glowing coma and tail. These processes are responsible for the comet's increased brightness and dynamic behavior.

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On June 2, 2024, Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks will make its closest approach to Earth in 71 years, at a distance of more than 143 million miles (230 million kilometers). Although this distance is quite large in human terms, it is relatively close for a comet, allowing astronomers to observe it in greater detail. Despite this proximity, the comet poses no threat to our planet.

Viewing Opportunities in the Southern Hemisphere

Dr. Teddy Kareta from Lowell Observatory highlights that this period offers a significant opportunity for Southern Hemisphere observers, potentially the best since the 1950s, to view the comet. This period is particularly important for scientific study due to the comet’s unusual outbursts and horned appearance.

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The best time to observe the devil comet will be from around 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. local time. During this period, the comet will be visible in the western sky. Although the comet’s brightness will have diminished since its peak in late April, it should still be detectable with the aid of binoculars or a small telescope. Observers are advised to look westward after sunset when the sky starts to darken but before it becomes fully dark, as the comet may blend into the twilight.

Recent Activity and Scientific Curiosity

The devil comet has recently exhibited a series of outbursts, ejecting gas and dust, which has resulted in its horned shape. This activity is relatively unusual and has prompted scientists to investigate further. Dr. Dave Schleicher from Lowell Observatory suggests that these outbursts are caused by the sun’s heat.

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As the comet nears the sun, heat penetrates its surface, causing frozen gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to vaporize, build pressure, and eventually burst through the surface. These dynamic behaviors make the comet a fascinating subject for study.

Continued Observations and Research

Astronomers are closely monitoring Comet 12P/Pons-Brooks to gather more information about its rotation rate and the effects of its outbursts. The comet rotates every 57 hours, which is longer than initially expected. This raises questions about whether the material jets are affecting its rotation.

Scientists have identified two primary regions on the comet’s surface where these jets originate, sparking curiosity about why the entire surface isn’t erupting. Dr. Schleicher speculates that the ice on much of the surface may have crusted over or vaporized, leaving only dirt. These observations are essential for understanding the comet’s unique behavior and characteristics.

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As the comet makes its closest approach to Earth, astronomers are seizing this rare chance to collect valuable data. Despite its decreasing brightness, the devil comet's distinctive features and rare visit continue to captivate both the scientific community and the general public.

Ongoing research and observations will likely provide further insights into this enigmatic celestial object, deepening our understanding of comets and their significance in the solar system.

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An editor specializing in astronomy and space industry, passionate about uncovering the mysteries of the universe and the technological advances that propel space exploration.

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