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Super dusty comet releases mystery clumps

super-dusty-comet-releases-mystery-clumps

Images acquired by SECCHI/HI-1 telescope aboard the solar-observing STEREO-B spacecraft have revealed strange streaming clumps from unusually dusty Comet C/2011 L4 (Pan-STARRS). This discovery could hold secrets to how comets create their beautiful, sweeping, striated tails.

"I was looking at Coronal Mass Ejections and stumbled into this," said Nour E. Raouafi, who conducts his research at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL) in Laurel, Maryland. “This comet came into the field of view and it was amazing.”

Pan-STARRS is likely a new comet on its first trip to the inner solar system from the Oort cloud, where comets in the Solar System originate, Raouafi said. Studying the comet provides scientists a rare opportunity to monitor the composition and dynamics of a relatively pristine comet, he said.

Raouafi noticed the comet had strange clumps that appeared to be blowing in the solar wind straight off the nucleus of the comet. He asked for advice from JHUAPL astrophysicist Casey Lisse, who was impressed with what he saw.

“This is about one of the dustiest comets we’ve ever seen,” said Lisse. “It’s really bright. It has really given us a show.”

The images were put together to make a movie that shows the creation of the comet tail and reveals the dynamic clumps pouring off the nucleus like smoke from a blown-out candle.

Original video courtesy of N. E. Raouafi et al.

The dustiness make it an unprecedented laboratory for studying how comets grow their tails, said the researchers, who are authors of a new study detailing the findings in Journal of Geophysical Research-Space Physics, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

More information can be found at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10…

Featured image credit: N.E. Raouafi et al.

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