What makes a comet flare up suddenly? No one knows exactly, but astronomers do know that outbursts are sometimes seen when comets are near their parent stars. Now University of Maryland astronomers say they’ve made the most complete and detailed observations to date of the formation and dissipation of a comet outburst. The comet is none other than 46P/Wirtanen, which last swept closest to the Earth and sun in its 5.4-year orbit in late 2018. You might remember this comet. We published many beautiful images of it, captured in November and December 2018 by members of the EarthSky community.
Shortly before earthly astrophotographers began to ogle it, the comet entered the field of view of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), whose job is to seek exoplanets. As it happened, while TESS was aimed its way, 46P/Wirtanen underwent an outburst. Researchers were able to gain a clear start-to-finish image sequence of the explosive emission of dust, ice and gases. Team members reported their results in the November 22, 2019 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
TESS spends nearly a month at a time imaging one portion of the sky. With no day or night breaks and no atmospheric interference, we have a very uniform, long-duration set of observations. As comets orbit the sun, they can pass through TESS’ field of view. Wirtanen was a high priority for us because of its close approach in late 2018, so we decided to use its appearance in the TESS images as a test case to see what we could get out of it.
We did so and were very surprised!
Farnham said that, although Wirtanen came closest to Earth on December 16, 2018, the outburst began in September. The astronomers’ statement explained:
The initial brightening of the outburst occurred in two distinct phases, with an hour-long flash followed by a more gradual second stage that continued to grow brighter for another 8 hours. This second stage was likely caused by the gradual spreading of comet dust from the outburst, which causes the dust cloud to reflect more sunlight overall.
After reaching peak brightness, the comet faded gradually over a period of more than two weeks.
In its search for exoplanets, it’s TESS’ job to acquire detailed composite images every 30 minutes. And so the team studying the comet was able to view each phase of the outburst in what they called “exquisite detail.” Farnham said:
With 20 days’ worth of very frequent images, we were able to assess changes in brightness very easily. That’s what TESS was designed for, to perform its primary job as an exoplanet surveyor. We can’t predict when comet outbursts will happen. But even if we somehow had the opportunity to schedule these observations, we couldn’t have done any better in terms of timing. The outburst happened mere days after the observations started.
Farnham and his colleagues said they’re also the first to observe Wirtanen’s dust trail. Unlike a comet’s tail — the spray of gas and fine dust that follows behind a comet, growing as it approaches the sun — a comet’s trail is a field of larger debris that traces the comet’s orbital path as it travels around the sun. Unlike a tail, which changes direction as it is blown by the solar wind, the orientation of the trail stays more or less constant over time, they said. Astronomer Michael Kelley – a co-author on the new paper – explained:
The trail more closely follows the orbit of the comet, while the tail is more offset from it, as it gets pushed around by the sun’s radiation pressure. What’s significant about the trail is that it contains the largest material. Tail dust is very fine, a lot like smoke. But trail dust is much larger—more like sand and pebbles.
We think comets lose most of their mass through their dust trails. When the Earth runs into a comet’s dust trail, we get meteor showers.
Their statement said:
The team has generated a rough estimate of how much material may have been ejected in the outburst (about 2.2 million pounds [1 million kg], which could have left a crater close to 65 feet [20 meters] across), but further analysis of the estimated particle sizes in the dust tail may help improve this estimate. Observing more comets will also help to determine whether multi-stage brightening is rare or commonplace in comet outbursts.
We also don’t know what causes natural outbursts and that’s ultimately what we want to find. There are at least four other comets in the same area of the sky where TESS made these observations, with a total of about 50 comets expected in the first two years’ worth of TESS data. There’s a lot that can come of these data. We’re still finding out the capabilities of TESS, so hopefully we’ll have more to report on this comet and others very soon.
According to Farnham, the TESS observations of comet Wirtanen were the first to capture all phases of a natural comet outburst, from beginning to end. The astronomers’ statement explained:
… three other previous observations came close to recording the beginning of an outburst event. Observations of a 2007 outburst from comet 17P/Holmes began late, missing several hours of the initial brightening phase of the event. In 2017, observations of an outburst from comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1 (SW1) concluded early, due to limitations on pre-scheduled observation time. And, while observations from the Deep Impact mission captured an outburst from comet Tempel 1 in unprecedented detail in 2005, the outburst was not natural
created instead by the mission’s impactor module. However, the current observations are the first to capture the dissipation phase in its entirety.
While the current study describes initial results, Farnham, Kelley and their colleagues said they look forward to further analyses of Wirtanen, as well as other comets in TESS’ field of view.
Bottom line: Comet 46P/Wirtanen passed about 7 million miles from Earth at its closest, on December 16, 2018. That’s expected to be the brightest close approach for this comet for the next 20 years. Shortly before its closest approach to the Earth and sun, NASA’s TESS planet-hunter happened to catch a start-to-finish sequence showing an outburst of this comet. Astronomers are delighted.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.