NASA Finds an Odd Green Comet With Unusual Ingredients

Sunday, 03 December 2017 - 12:54PM
Space
Astronomy
NASA
Sunday, 03 December 2017 - 12:54PM
NASA Finds an Odd Green Comet With Unusual Ingredients
Wikimedia Commons/John Vermette
Comet 45P last flew by the Earth around early February 2017, and if you had a chance to see it, you probably remember it as the large green ball flying through the night sky.

Now, while 45P isn't the only green comet out there (Comet Lovejoy is another comet that looks green in color, due to "diatomic carbon"), it turns out the comet is much more significant in other ways. NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii paid close attention to 45P while it was passing just 7.4 million miles away from the Earth, and discovered its composition is completely unlike any comet the space agency's seen before.

According to a press release from NASA, the comet's icy nucleus released an assortment of nine gases into its extremely thin atmosphere - which is called its coma - including trace amounts of carbon monoxide and a ton of methane, which is unheard of, alongside several building blocks for biological materials like amino acids and sugars. This was all found using a high resolution spectrograph called iSHELL, which gives astronomers a closer look at otherwise faint, distant comets.

45P is considered a Jupiter-family comet, which means it orbits around the sun at a relatively quick pace of five to seven years, much faster than the more distant comets out in the Oort Cloud. Although much less is known about the Jupiter-family comets, part of the reason why carbon monoxide and methane are such rare finds. 


The methane is especially significant, because there's so much more of it. Frozen carbon monoxide has been seen before in comets, but there's usually a small amount since gases often escape. Since the methane should also be escaping at the same rate as carbon monoxide, there's currently no explanation for why the comet is still holding on to so much of it while everything else is getting left behind in the comet's trail.

At this point, you might be wondering why this is all important. For now, the only answer is along the lines of "nobody's sure yet, but it's never been seen before." Looking at the materials released by the ice, rocks and dust which make up a comet is a great way to look into the comet's age and how it formed, and 45P might have a bizarre, ancient story worth telling when it's further analyzed.

According to Boncho Bonev, an astronomer at American University who worked on a study regarding 45P (or as it's officially called, "Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdušáková"):

Opening quote
"Comet scientists are like archaeologists, studying old samples to understand the past. We want to distinguish comets as they formed from the processing they might have experienced, like separating historical relics from later contamination."
Closing quote


And beyond that, biological materials nearly always draw some attention, as the search for alien life continues. Similar comets to 45P will be swinging by the Earth very soon and will be worth a look to see how well they match up, although they'll be much less green.
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