Whenever you hear of comets, you often assume that them to be composed of dust, rock, and ice flying through space without a specific destination. However, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope recently discovered water surrounding a mysterious flying comet. This rare comet is located within the main asteroid belt orbiting the sun between Jupiter and Mars.
This discovery is the first time JWST is spotting water around a comet in the main asteroid belt. The observation is extremely important to scientists as it reveals water in the infant solar system could have been preserved in the form of ice within the main belt region.
How JWST Discovered Water Around A Mysterious Flying Comet
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been making fascinating discoveries since its launch in December 2021. In its latest observation, the most powerful telescope of our time studied a space rock named Comet 238P/Read and discovered water vapor around the comet.
Astronomers marvel at this discovery as it would potentially boost theories suggesting that Water which is an essential ingredient for life was delivered to Earth by comets.
“In the past, we’ve seen objects in the main belt with all the characteristics of comets, but only with this precise spectral data from the JWST can we say ‘yes,’ it’s definitely water ice that is creating that effect,” astronomer Michael Kelley of the University of Maryland, who led this research, said in a statement. “With the JWST’s observations of Comet Read, we can now demonstrate that water ice from the early solar system can be preserved in the asteroid belt.”
Despite the fascinating elements found on this comet, scientists still remain anxious to learn that some basic elements such as Carbon dioxide that are supposed to be present on the space rock are missing. The absence of carbon dioxide around Comet 238P/Read amazes our astronomers as previous studies estimate that this compound should have taken up to 10% of the volatile matter in comets. Astronomers reveal that this volatile matter contained in comets could easily evaporate by the sun.
Why Carbon dioxide is missing from Comet 238P/Read
The researchers said that Comet 238P/Read could be missing carbon dioxide because of two reasons. One of these reasons is that the space rock may have had carbon dioxide during its creation stage. However, the warming of the Sun may have erased the existence of Carbon dioxide from the comet.
“Being in the asteroid belt for a long time could do it — carbon dioxide vaporizes more easily than water ice and could percolate out over billions of years,” Kelley said.
The second reason for the absence of carbon dioxide on the comet is that the space rock existed in the region of the solar system where the compound is devoid. Astronomers discovered the main asteroid belt as a region that houses rocky bodies such as asteroids.
However, recent studies enable scientists to realize that comet-like bodies also exist in the main belt region. Cometary bodies like Comet 238P/Read can be spotted as they occasionally brighten as a halo of material. They also create a tail of material while moving across space. This tail of material characterizes them as comets.
How Astronomers Easily Spot a Flying Comet
The tail and coma of a comet make it easier for skywatchers to detect comets whenever they fly across. The coma and tail come from solid icy material which often changes straight into gas via a process known as sublimation. Comets often undergo this transformation process as they move toward the sun and heat by solar energy.
Comet 238P/Read was one of the three bodies that have helped astronomers create a family of comets discovered in the near-Earth region. In the past, scientists were not sure if comets could contain frozen water. However, this recent discovery is the first time astronomers are providing conclusive evidence that comets could like to hang around frozen water.
“Our water-soaked world, teeming with life and unique in the universe as far as we know, is something of a mystery — we’re not sure how all this water got here,” research co-author and Webb Deputy Project Scientist for Planetary Science Stefanie Milam said in the statement. “Understanding the history of water distribution in the solar system will help us to understand other planetary systems and if they could be on their way to hosting an Earth-like planet.”
What Are The Next Plans Of The Scientists
The scientists are hoping to look deeper into space and spot similar mysterious comets with identical properties. The team may use JWST and other powerful telescopes in conducting further observations and obtaining more samples from Comet 238P/Read.
“These objects in the asteroid belt are small and faint, and with the JWST, we can finally see what is going on with them and draw some conclusions,” co-author and Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) astronomer Heidi Hammel said. “Do other main belt comets also lack carbon dioxide? Either way, it will be exciting to find out.”
The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature. You can check them out to learn more about the just conducted research.
Observing the universe in search of new scientific discoveries has remained the primary goal of astronomers. Hence, the recent discovery of Comet 238P/Read will enable us to learn more about comets and their potential. What do you think about this fascinating discovery?