The cosmic arena witnessed a thrilling celestial dance as a volcanic “devil comet” surged into view yet again on Halloween, brandishing its distinctive “horns.”
This recent eruption, the third since July and the second within a month, accentuates the escalating volcanic activity of the comet hurtling towards the solar system’s core.
12P/Pons-Brooks: The Cryovolcanic Enigma
This speeding comet, labeled 12P/Pons-Brooks (12P), holds a peculiar identity as a cryovolcanic—or cold volcano—comet.
Enclosed within this cosmic wanderer lies a solid nucleus, an icy, hardened shell teeming with ice, gas, and cosmic dust, encompassed by a misty cloud or coma composed of leaked materials from the comet’s core.
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Distinct from its non-volcanic peers, 12P’s interior experiences intense radiation from the sun, initiating a pressure surge that ruptures the nucleus, propelling its frozen contents into space.
These eruptions provoke the comet’s coma to expand and luminosity to intensify, reflecting more sunlight back towards Earth.
Unveiling the Devil’s ‘Horns’
The comet’s eruptions fashion its coma into iconic devil-like “horns.” This bizarre occurrence arises from the comet’s sizable nucleus, approximately 10.5 miles (17 kilometers) wide, and a peculiar “notch” disrupting the cryomagma outflow, resulting in an irregularly shaped expanded coma.
Spectacular Eruptions Captivate Astronomers
On July 20, 12P vented for the first time in 69 years, expanding its misshapen coma to over 7,000 times the width of its nucleus. Subsequently, on Oct. 5, experts witnessed a more intense explosion.
Recently, on Oct. 31, amateur astronomer Eliot Herman observed yet another outburst, reporting an almost 100-fold increase in brightness.
Herman relayed to Spaceweather.com that the comet burst forth “on Halloween with a large outburst that continued into the next day.”
Following observations highlighted a significant expansion in the coma, reinvigorating its horns, albeit less distinctly than in previous eruptions.
The Comet’s Celestial Approach
12P’s elliptical orbit propels it close to the sun before flinging it back to the outer solar system, where it meanders before once more journeying towards the inner solar system.
This trajectory mirrors that of the green comet Nishimura, which executed a similar slingshot maneuver in September.
The comet’s orbit spans approximately 71 years, mostly concealed within the outer solar realms. Astronomers can catch a clear view only as it approaches its closest point to the sun, currently unfolding.
A Cosmic Timeline Unfolds
Reaching perihelion on April 24, 2024, 12P will edge within a minimum distance of 72.5 million miles (116.7 million km) from the sun, closer than Earth but farther than Venus.
Subsequently, on June 2, 2024, the comet will achieve its closest proximity to Earth, passing by at 144.1 million miles (231.9 million km) – around 1.5 times the distance between Earth and the sun – before embarking on its return journey to the outer solar expanse until 2094.
The Cosmic Spectacle: Visible to the Naked Eye
As the comet nears the sun, its luminance in the night sky intensifies due to increased sunlight reflection.
This elevation in brightness hints at the possibility of being visible to the naked eye in late May or early June during its passage by Earth.
Increasing Radiance and Celestial Grandeur
Closer proximity to the sun triggers more frequent eruptions and a vivid display of devilish horns as the comet absorbs increased solar radiation, spurring the boiling of its frozen contents.
The celestial escapade of the volcanic comet hurtling towards Earth not only mesmerizes astronomers but also promises a spectacular display for sky gazers in the forthcoming months.