February 12th, 2010

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Comet Watch

I was intrigued by this space exploration news about a newly discovered comet.

WISE Spies a Comet with its Powerful Infrared Eye

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has discovered its
first comet, one of many the mission is expected to find among millions
of other objects during its ongoing survey of the whole sky in infrared
light.

Officially named "P/2010 B2 (WISE)," but known simply as WISE, the comet
is a dusty mass of ice more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) in diameter. It
probably formed around the same time as our solar system, about 4.5
billion years ago. Comet WISE started out in the cold, dark reaches of
our solar system, but after a long history of getting knocked around by
the gravitational forces of Jupiter, it settled into an orbit much closer
to the sun. Right now, the comet is heading away from the sun and is
about 175 million kilometers (109 million miles) from Earth.

"Comets are ancient reservoirs of water. They are one of the few places
besides Earth in the inner solar system where water is known to exist,"
said Amy Mainzer of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Mainzer is the principal investigator of NEOWISE, a project to find and
catalog new asteroids and comets spotted by WISE (the acronym combines
WISE with NEO, the shorthand for near-Earth object).

"With WISE, we have a powerful tool to find new comets and learn more
about the population as a whole. Water is necessary for life as we know
it, and comets can tell us more about how much there is in our solar
system."

The WISE telescope, which launched into a polar orbit around Earth on
Dec. 14, 2009, is expected to discover anywhere from a few to dozens of
new comets, in addition to hundreds of thousands of asteroids. Comets
are harder to find than asteroids because they are much more rare in the
inner solar system. Whereas asteroids tour around in the "main belt"
between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, large numbers of comets orbit
farther away, in the icy outer reaches of our solar system.

Both asteroids and comets can fall into orbits that bring them close to
Earth's path around the sun. Most of these "near-Earth objects" are
asteroids but some are comets. WISE is expected to find new near-Earth
comets, and this will give us a better idea of how threatening they
might be to Earth.

"It is very unlikely that a comet will hit Earth," said James Bauer, a
scientist at JPL working on the WISE project, "But, in the rare chance
that one did, it could be dangerous. The new discoveries from WISE will
give us more precise statistics about the probability of such an event,
and how powerful an impact it might yield."

The space telescope spotted the comet during its routine scan of the sky
on January 22. Sophisticated software plucked the comet out from the
stream of images pouring down from space by looking for objects that move
quickly relative to background stars. The comet discovery was followed
up by a combination of professional and amateur astronomers using
telescopes across the United States.

A teacher also teamed up with an observer to measure comet WISE using a
home-built telescope next to a cornfield in Illinois. Their research is
part of the International Astronomical Search Collaboration, an education
program that helps teachers and students observe comets and asteroids
(more information is online at http://iasc.hsutx.edu/).

All the data are catalogued at the Minor Planet Center, in Cambridge,
Mass., the worldwide clearinghouse for all observations and orbits of
minor planets and comets.

Comet WISE takes 4.7 years to circle the sun, with its farthest point
being about 4 astronomical units away, and its closest point being 1.6
astronomical units (near the orbit of Mars). An astronomical unit is the
distance between Earth and the sun. Heat from the sun causes gas and
dust to blow off the comet, resulting in a dusty coma, or shell, and a tail.

Though this particular body is actively shedding dust, WISE is also
expected to find dark, dead comets. Once a comet has taken many trips
around the sun, its icy components erode away, leaving only a dark, rocky
core. Not much is known about these objects because they are hard to see
in visible light. WISE's infrared sight should be able to pick up the
feeble glow of some of these dark comets, answering questions about
precisely how and where they form.

"Dead comets can be darker than coal," said Mainzer. "But in infrared
light, they will pop into view. One question we want to answer with WISE
is how many dead comets make up the near-Earth object population."

The mission will spend the next eight months mapping the sky
one-and-a-half times. A first batch of data will be available to the
public in the spring of 2011, and the final catalog a year later.
Selected images and findings will be released throughout the mission.

JPL manages the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer for NASA's Science
Mission Directorate, Washington. The principal investigator, Edward
Wright, is at UCLA. The mission was competitively selected under NASA's
Explorers Program managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt,
Md. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory,
Logan, Utah, and the spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace &
Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. Science operations and data processing
take place at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for
NASA. The ground-based observations are partly supported by the National
Science Foundation. The Minor Planet Center is funded by NASA. More
information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/wise and
http://wise.astro.ucla.edu.