NASA's Swift spies Comet Lulin

February 20, 2009

GREENBELT, Md. - While waiting for high-energy outbursts and cosmic explosions, NASA's Swift Gamma-ray Explorer satellite is monitoring Comet Lulin as it closes on Earth. For the first time, astronomers are seeing simultaneous ultraviolet and X-ray images of a comet.

"We won't be able to send a space probe to Comet Lulin, but Swift is giving us some of the information we would get from just such a mission," said Jenny Carter, at the University of Leicester, U.K., who is leading the study.

"The comet is releasing a great amount of gas, which makes it an ideal target for X-ray observations," said Andrew Read, also at Leicester.

A comet is a clump of frozen gases mixed with dust. These "dirty snowballs" cast off gas and dust whenever they venture near the sun. Comet Lulin, which is formally known as C/2007 N3, was discovered last year by astronomers at Taiwan's Lulin Observatory. The comet is now faintly visible from a dark site. Lulin will pass closest to Earth -- 38 million miles, or about 160 times farther than the moon -- late on the evening of Feb. 23 for North America.

On Jan. 28, Swift trained its Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) and X-Ray Telescope (XRT) on Comet Lulin. "The comet is quite active," said team member Dennis Bodewits, a NASA Postdoctoral Fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "The UVOT data show that Lulin was shedding nearly 800 gallons of water each second." That's enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in less than 15 minutes.

Swift can't see water directly. But ultraviolet light from the sun quickly breaks apart water molecules into hydrogen atoms and hydroxyl (OH) molecules. Swift's UVOT detects the hydroxyl molecules, and its images of Lulin reveal a hydroxyl cloud spanning nearly 250,000 miles, or slightly greater than the distance between Earth and the moon.

The UVOT includes a prism-like device called a grism, which separates incoming light by wavelength. The grism's range includes wavelengths in which the hydroxyl molecule is most active. "This gives us a unique view into the types and quantities of gas a comet produces, which gives us clues about the origin of comets and the solar system," Bodewits explains. Swift is currently the only space observatory covering this wavelength range.

In the Swift images, the comet's tail extends off to the right. Solar radiation pushes icy grains away from the comet. As the grains gradually evaporate, they create a thin hydroxyl tail.

Farther from the comet, even the hydroxyl molecule succumbs to solar ultraviolet radiation. It breaks into its constituent oxygen and hydrogen atoms. "The solar wind -- a fast-moving stream of particles from the sun -- interacts with the comet's broader cloud of atoms. This causes the solar wind to light up with X rays, and that's what Swift's XRT sees," said Stefan Immler, also at Goddard.

This interaction, called charge exchange, results in X-rays from most comets when they pass within about three times Earth's distance from the sun. Because Lulin is so active, its atomic cloud is especially dense. As a result, the X-ray-emitting region extends far sunward of the comet.

"We are looking forward to future observations of Comet Lulin, when we hope to get better X-ray data to help us determine its makeup," noted Carter. "They will allow us to build up a more complete 3-D picture of the comet during its flight through the solar system."
-end-
Other members of the team include Michael Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva at Goddard.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the Swift satellite. It is being operated in collaboration with partners in the U.S., the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany and Japan. NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is an astrophysics and particle physics observatory developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy and with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the U.S.

Images: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/swift/bursts/lulin.html

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Related Solar System Articles from Brightsurf:

Ultraviolet shines light on origins of the solar system
In the search to discover the origins of our solar system, an international team of researchers, including planetary scientist and cosmochemist James Lyons of Arizona State University, has compared the composition of the sun to the composition of the most ancient materials that formed in our solar system: refractory inclusions in unmetamorphosed meteorites.

Second alignment plane of solar system discovered
A study of comet motions indicates that the Solar System has a second alignment plane.

Pressure runs high at edge of solar system
Out at the boundary of our solar system, pressure runs high.

What a dying star's ashes tell us about the birth of our solar system
A UA-led team of researchers discovered a dust grain forged in a stellar explosion before our solar system was born.

What scientists found after sifting through dust in the solar system
Two recent studies report discoveries of dust rings in the inner solar system: a dust ring at Mercury's orbit, and a group of never-before-detected asteroids co-orbiting with Venus, supplying the dust in Venus' orbit.

Discovered: The most-distant solar system object ever observed
A team of astronomers has discovered the most-distant body ever observed in our solar system.

Discovery of the first body in the Solar System with an extrasolar origin
Asteroid 2015 BZ509 is the very first object in the Solar System shown to have an extrasolar origin.

First interstellar immigrant discovered in the solar system
A new study has discovered the first known permanent immigrant to our solar system.

A star disturbed the comets of the solar system in prehistory
About 70,000 years ago, when the human species was already on Earth, a small reddish star approached our solar system and gravitationally disturbed comets and asteroids.

Scientists detect comets outside our solar system
Scientists from MIT and other institutions, working closely with amateur astronomers, have spotted the dusty tails of six exocomets -- comets outside our solar system -- orbiting a faint star 800 light years from Earth.

Read More: Solar System News and Solar System Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.