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Comet hurtling towards Earth sprouts horns after volcanic eruption | Tech News

The comet named 12P/Pons-Brooks (12P) is a cryovolcanic – or cold volcano – comet (Picture: Gianluca Masi/The Virtual Telescope Project)

Astronomers have spotted a rare volcanic eruption on a comet, making it look like it had sprouted horns.

The unusual phenomenon occurred due to a volcanic eruption on the comet causing it to shine like a small star and shower supercold ‘magma’ into space.

This is the first time in nearly 70 years since the comet has been seen erupting.

The comet named 12P/Pons-Brooks (12P) is a cryovolcanic – or cold volcano – comet.

Unlike most other comets, the gas and ice inside 12P’s centre build up so much that the celestial object can violently explode, shooting out streams of ‘cryomagma’ through large cracks in its shell.

Last month, multiple astronomers detected a major outburst from the comet, which suddenly became around 100 times brighter than it usually appears, as reported by Spaceweather.com.

The sudden increase in brightness has been attributed to the cloud around the comet, the coma, suddenly swelling up with gas and ice crystals released from the comet’s interior, resulting in more sunlight being reflected back to Earth. 

The expanded coma makes it look like the space rock has sprouted horns.

As of July 26, the comet’s coma had grown to around 143,000 miles (230,000 kilometres) across, or more than 7,000 times wider than its nucleus, which has an estimated diameter of around 18.6 miles (30 kilometres), Richard Miles, an astronomer with the British Astronomical Association who studies cryovolcanic comets, told Live Science in an email.

Other experts have reportedly likened the deformed comet to the Millennium Falcon, one of the iconic spaceships from Star Wars.

Why does it look like the comet has horns?

The unusual shape of the comet is likely due to an irregularity in the shape of 12P’s nucleus, according to Mr Miles.

The expanded coma is expected to eventually disappear as the gas and ice become too dispersed to reflect sunlight.

Mr Miles added that it was the first major eruption detected from 12P in 69 years as its orbit takes it too far away from Earth for any similar outbursts to be noticed.

12P has one of the longest known orbital periods of any comet. It takes around 71 years for the comet to fully orbit the Sun, travelling the farthest reaches of the solar system in that time.

The comet is due to reach its closest point to the Sun on April 21, 2024 and make its closest approach to Earth on June 2, 2024, at which point it will be visible in the night sky.

So, this is one to keep an eye on for stargazers as we could get a front-row seat to more eruptions over the next few years.


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