NASA's Hubble Observes the Farthest Active Inbound Comet Yet Seen

Article ID: 681877

Released: 28-Sep-2017 1:00 PM EDT

Source Newsroom: Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

  • Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

    This Hubble Space Telescope image shows a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2), the farthest active comet ever observed entering the solar system. Hubble snapped images of K2 when the frozen visitor was 1.5 billion miles from the Sun, just beyond Saturn's orbit. Even at that remote distance, sunlight is warming the frigid comet, producing an 80,000-mile-wide coma that envelops a tiny, solid nucleus. K2 has been traveling for millions of years from its home in the Oort Cloud, a spherical region at the edge of our solar system. This frigid area contains hundreds of billions of comets, the icy leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.

  • Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

    This illustration shows the orbit of comet C/2017 K2 PANSTARRS (K2) on its maiden voyage into the solar system. The Hubble Space Telescope observed K2 when it was 1.5 billion miles from the Sun, halfway between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. The observations revealed a fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, surrounding the icy visitor, evidence that the frozen comet is being warmed by the Sun and releasing material. K2 is the farthest active inbound comet ever observed. K2 has been traveling toward the Sun for millions of years from its home in the Oort Cloud, a spherical region at the edge of our solar system. The graphic shows the comet in its inbound journey, high above the plane of the major planets' orbits. The orbits of the giant planets, from Jupiter to Neptune, are also shown in the diagram. The farthest object from the Sun depicted here is the dwarf planet Pluto, which resides in the Kuiper Belt, a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system.

Newswise — NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has photographed the farthest active inbound comet ever seen, at a whopping distance of 1.5 billion miles from the Sun (beyond Saturn's orbit). Slightly warmed by the remote Sun, it has already begun to develop an 80,000-mile-wide fuzzy cloud of dust, called a coma, enveloping a tiny, solid nucleus of frozen gas and dust. These observations represent the earliest signs of activity ever seen from a comet entering the solar system's planetary zone for the first time.

The comet, called C/2017 K2 (PANSTARRS) or "K2", has been travelling for millions of years from its home in the frigid outer reaches of the solar system, where the temperature is about minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit. The comet's orbit indicates that it came from the Oort Cloud, a spherical region almost a light-year in diameter and thought to contain hundreds of billions of comets. Comets are the icy leftovers from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago and therefore pristine in icy composition.

"K2 is so far from the Sun and so cold, we know for sure that the activity — all the fuzzy stuff making it look like a comet — is not produced, as in other comets, by the evaporation of water ice," said lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles. "Instead, we think the activity is due to the sublimation [a solid changing directly into a gas] of super-volatiles as K2 makes its maiden entry into the solar system's planetary zone. That's why it's special. This comet is so far away and so incredibly cold that water ice there is frozen like a rock."

Based on the Hubble observations of K2's coma, Jewitt suggests that sunlight is heating frozen volatile gases - such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide - that coat the comet's frigid surface. These icy volatiles lift off from the comet and release dust, forming the coma. Past studies of the composition of comets near the Sun have revealed the same mixture of volatile ices.

"I think these volatiles are spread all through K2, and in the beginning billions of years ago, they were probably all through every comet presently in the Oort Cloud," Jewitt said. "But the volatiles on the surface are the ones that absorb the heat from the Sun, so, in a sense, the comet is shedding its outer skin. Most comets are discovered much closer to the Sun, near Jupiter's orbit, so by the time we see them, these surface volatiles have already been baked off. That's why I think K2 is the most primitive comet we've seen."

K2 was discovered in May 2017 by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) in Hawaii, a survey project of NASA's Near-Earth Object Observations Program. Jewitt used Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3 at the end of June to take a closer look at the icy visitor.

Hubble's sharp "eye" revealed the extent of the coma and also helped Jewitt estimate the size of the nucleus — less than 12 miles across — though the tenuous coma is 10 Earth diameters across.

This vast coma must have formed when the comet was even farther away from the Sun. Digging through archival images, Jewitt's team uncovered views of K2 and its fuzzy coma taken in 2013 by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) in Hawaii. But the object was then so faint that no one noticed it.

"We think the comet has been continuously active for at least four years," Jewitt said. "In the CFHT data, K2 had a coma already at 2 billion miles from the Sun, when it was between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. It was already active, and I think it has been continuously active coming in. As it approaches the Sun, it's getting warmer and warmer, and the activity is ramping up."

But, curiously, the Hubble images do not show a tail flowing from K2, which is a signature of comets. The absence of such a feature indicates that particles lifting off the comet are too large for radiation pressure from the Sun to sweep them back into a tail.

Astronomers will have plenty of time to conduct detailed studies of K2. For the next five years, the comet will continue its journey into the inner solar system before it reaches its closest approach to the Sun in 2022 just beyond Mars' orbit. "We will be able to monitor for the first time the developing activity of a comet falling in from the Oort Cloud over an extraordinary range of distances," Jewitt said. "It should become more and more active as it nears the Sun and presumably will form a tail."

Jewitt said that NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, an infrared observatory scheduled to launch in 2018, could measure the heat from the nucleus, which would give astronomers a more accurate estimate of its size.

The team's results will appear in the September 28 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

For images and more information about Comet K2 and Hubble, visit:
http://hubblesite.org/news_release/news/2017-40
http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

Donna Weaver / Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
dweaver@stsci.edu / villard@stsci.edu

David Jewitt
University of California, Los Angeles, California
310-825-2521
Jewitt@ucla.edu

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