In the asteroid belt that stretches between Mars and Jupiter, what do you think you’ll find? It should not come as a surprise that the right answer is asteroids, which are millions of pieces of rocky debris. But only lately, astronomers have uncovered several peculiar objects that seem to be out of place: comets. These comets were lurking amid the debris.
Now, according to a study that was published last week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a survey that was dedicated to hunting these outcasts may have spotted another icy individual shooting its own matter into space. This was reported in a study that was published last week.
The scientists used the Wide Field Camera on the Isaac Newton Telescope, which is located on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, to identify the possible comet. They monitored 534 distinct asteroids throughout the course of three observation periods spanning the years 2018 through 2020, seeking for indications of a comet’s coma, which is its ephemeral gassy shell, or tail, which is created by the dust in the coma being pushed by the sun’s radiation.
Comets are thought to be composed of a nucleus, which is a solid core composed of a variety of ices and dust. The comet’s more volatile ices begin to evaporate as it gets closer to the sun, giving rise to a coma and two distinct sorts of tails.
It is believed that comets formed on the outskirts of the solar system and maybe even beyond it. Comets tend to adhere to the warmer edge of the inner solar system, in contrast to their icy relatives, which tend to hang out in the chilly outer regions of our star system, the asteroid belt, or the main belt. The frozen substance of these comets is a mystery due to the fact that they are just as old as the asteroids that surround them.
Léa Ferellec, a doctoral student in the department of astronomy at the University of Edinburgh and one of the authors of the research, said that “we need to be able to explain how their ice lasted for so long.”
Not only will this assist to explain the variety of planets and the arrangement of the solar system, but it will also help to answer one of the most perplexing mysteries in all of astronomy, which is: where did the water on Earth originate from?
Astronomers have a hunch that at least part of the water on Earth originated from a barrage of comets that flew in from a distant location. However, robotic reconnaissance missions and observations from a great distance have shown that the chemical fingerprints of their water do not always match those of Earth’s. In addition to this, it is more simpler for objects coming from the asteroid belt to collide with the planet.
According to Colin Snodgrass, an astronomer at the University of Edinburgh and a co-author of the paper, this indicates that objects such as main belt comets may “be a source of Earth’s water.”
The ices of a main belt comet, much like the ices of other comets, evaporate and produce a coma as the comet speeds through the solar system. Astonishingly, though, they revolve around what is known as the asteroid belt, which is a cemetery for material that failed to form into planets.
On the other hand, since their discovery, eight more have been found. There are perhaps 20 additional belt-bound objects that have been seen to lose mass. This might be the result of comet-like periodic ice evaporation, erratic spinning, or recent collisions by asteroids. All of these factors are contenders for the classification of comets.
In spite of the fact that the study’s researchers had high hopes of finding other mavericks in the main belt, they only came across one new candidate: 2001 NL19.
It’s possible that ice vaporisation gave birth to the cometary object, but that’s only a theory. When it gets closer to the sun again, that’s the time to make more observations since that’s when a coma or tail is most likely to form.
According to Dr. Snodgrass, the number of verified comets from the main belt implies that “these objects are native to the asteroid belt.” This is true regardless of the classification that is given to 2001 NL19. Their origin is still a mystery, despite the fact that a few hypotheses have been proposed.
Main belt comets, like their more distant and conventional counterparts, may have formed far from the sun during the chaotic early days of the solar system. However, instead of remaining far away, they may have been jostled by the gravity of other objects and placed into what is now known as the asteroid belt. If any primordial ice were to survive after billions of years, it would be buried deep under the stony surfaces of the planets. In the event that they are struck by a second asteroid, part of this ice will be dug, leaving it vulnerable to the blazing heat of the stars.
The presence of these asteroid-comet screwballs complicates the need to place natural occurrences into neat little boxes. This is one thing that is definite, despite the fact that there are many unknowns.
Kacper Wierzchos, an astronomer at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the research, is quoted as saying, “I often say, ‘Everything is a comet.'”