A team of “very enthusiastic” astronomers has discovered activity around a rare type of space object that is rocky like an asteroid but also covered in dust and gas, like a comet.
These unusual celestial bodies are known as Centaurs, like a half-human and half-horse creature from Greek mythology. They are actually small planets that originated in the Kuiper Ice Belt, at the edge of our solar system.
Objects are incredibly rare – in fact, although astronomers have been surveying the sky relentlessly, only 18 active centaurs have been discovered since 1927. They are also extremely difficult to observe because they are faint, so distant, and moving in unusual ways. Because of this poor understanding.
Despite these hurdles, the team of scientists from Northern Arizona University developed a new centaur monitoring technology called 2014 OG392 and made an important discovery.
The team created an algorithm to scan traces of activity in existing images from space. This enabled them to observe 2014 OG392 turning solids into gases – a process known as sublimation – leaving behind a long comet-like aura.
The next step in the process involved the use of computer modeling to figure out which types of ice could be burned from the rocks to form a corona. The investigation determined that carbon dioxide and ammonia were the two most likely candidates.
This was a huge achievement, and in 2014 it led OG392 to ditch her Centauri status to full guilt. It even has a new name and will now be called Speedy C / 2014 OG392 (PANSTARRS).
“I’m so excited that the Small Planet Center has given a new comet designation that fits with the activity we discovered on this unusual object,” Lead researcher Colin Chandler said.
Celestial bodies like this are thought to date back to the dawn of the solar system, and are thought to have barely changed in billions of years since then. Experts hope their study will help shed light on how planets form and evolve, including Earth.
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