(ORDO NEWS) — Everyone’s favorite comet flew too close to the Sun and appears to have disintegrated during its approach – a fitting metaphor and a fitting end to a cosmic snowball.
The comet, named Leonard, was first discovered on January 3 last year by Gregory Leonard, a senior scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona.
At that time, it was at a distance from Jupiter, reports EarthSky, and did not attract much attention until the end of that year, when amateur astronomers began to speculate in November that it might begin to break up.
But Leonard didn’t break up until its closest approach to the Sun in January of this year.
Astronomers watched as Leonard continued to fade, marking the climactic end of an exciting year long comet chase. In February, she was just a ghost of what she once was, as seen in images taken by the Slooh robotic telescope in Chile.
In fact, according to Leonard, “ghost” has now become an appropriate metaphor for the dust and gas that is likely left in its place.
“As for the possible death of the comet, I’m not opposed to the fact that it could have disintegrated,” he said in an interview with EarthSky.
“With its post-perihelion hyperbolic orbit, I once imagined a comet chasing another solar system in the distant future.
Now that its core may have disintegrated, it might seem like a weirder ghost, a hyperbolic patch of dust and gas, if that’s the case. “.
The paths of comets like Leonard are still very difficult to predict. Volatile surface material is ejected when their cores are heated by the Sun, causing them to move erratically.
Comet Leonard was especially strange, having an unusually triangular head and deviating from its predicted course.
During its journey, the mile-sized block of ice came tantalizingly close to us, far beyond Earth’s orbit, allowing some experts to see it unaided, glittering in the night sky and showing off its impressive tail.
Speaking of the tail, NASA’s and European Space Agency’s Solar Orbiter spacecraft managed to fly right through it – twice.
“It was an absolutely surreal experience as the long-awaited comet passed dimly overhead for most of 2021,” Leonard told EarthSky, “and I was ecstatic as it began to brighten and trail across the autumn and winter skies, and of course, named after my family.”
After all, this encounter could tell us about the earliest days of our solar system.
“Comets are literally older than mud and raise important questions about deep time and our origins,” Leonard told EarthSky.
“And of course comets are full of surprises, reminding us that we humans are not in control,” he added.
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