A volatile comet nicknamed the “devil comet” due to past dramatic outbursts has experienced its most significant eruption yet, as it hurtles towards a 2024 close encounter with Earth. The eruption briefly made the 18-mile wide comet brighter than a galaxy 600 million lightyears away, showcasing its intense cryovolcanic behavior.
Four Explosive Outbursts Observed Since July
Designated 12P/Pons-Brooks, this comet has a history of explosive outgassing events where it violently ejects plumes of dust and gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen. This creates a glowing coma and tails as sunlight reflects off expelled material.
12P/Pons-Brooks has undergone four eruptions since July 2022, increasing in magnitude each time. On November 14th, it abruptly brightened by over 100 times, the largest event astronomers have observed from this highly active comet.
Outbursts Create Brief Brilliance Rivaling Distant Galaxy
At the peak of this latest outburst, the comet shone as brightly as the Elliptical Galaxy, an enormous aggregation of stars some 600 million lightyears from Earth. This demonstrates the incredible scale of the eruption.
The comet’s 73-year orbit brings it close to the Sun, heating its frozen nucleus and triggering these cryovolcanic events as gases rapidly expand and blast through weakened areas of the crust.
Poses No Danger for 2024 Earth Flyby Despite Size and Violence
12P/Pons Brooks measures an imposing 18 miles in diameter, dwarfing famous comets like Halley’s Comet. This makes it one of the largest comets, though still tiny compared to celestial bodies like planets.
It will make its closest pass of Earth in 2024, around 27 million miles away – posing no direct danger. From this distance, it may be faintly visible to the naked eye before disappearing for another 71 years.
Cryovolcanic Comets Offer Clues to Early Solar System Composition
As relics leftover from the formation of the solar system over 4 billion years ago, comets provide a glimpse at primordial conditions and ingredients. Icy bodies may have also seeded early Earth with organic compounds essential for life.
By analyzing the composition of erupting material from cryovolcanic comets like 12P/Pons-Brooks through spectroscopy, scientists gain insights into solar system evolution, planets, and the fundamental chemistry enabling biology.
Understanding the complex activation of cryovolcanic eruptions remains an area of ongoing research with implications for solar system science and the emergence of habitability on Earth and elsewhere.
Comet Anatomy and Behavior Dictated by Highly Elliptical Orbits
Comets originate from two zones past the planets – the Kuiper Belt and distant Oort Cloud. They have extremely elliptical orbits, only passing near the Sun briefly before being flung back towards the outer solar system.
As comets approach perihelion (closest solar proximity), increased radiation and heat transform their surface. Frozen volatiles transition directly from solid to gas, blasting through weak spots in the crust. This builds tremendous pressure, culminating in explosive cryovolcanism sending jets of sublimated gases and ejecta streaming into space.
The comet nucleus contains darker organic materials mixed with frozen water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia ice. Surrounding this is an expanding, transient atmosphere of vaporized gas called the coma. Solar wind shapes expelled gas and dust into twin ion and dust tails trailing behind the comet’s path.
Passing Comets Provide Unique Research Opportunities
While representing minimal hazards to Earth compared to asteroids, passing comets allow valuable analysis of early solar system artifacts using modern instrumentation.
Observing dramatic outbursts by passing visitors like 12P/Pons Brooks delivers insights unavailable from more distant dormant comets, advancing astronomical knowledge. This fuels deeper understanding of our solar system’s past, present, and future.