According to a new paper published last month in the Journal Letters, astronomers, with the help of the Ling-Sun Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), have been able to keep a close eye on a small comet called 46P/Wirtanen and witness its explosion — gas and dust gushing out of its icy body,media reported.
The discovery uses 20 days of observations from TESS that focus on the small comet that orbits the sun for a week every 5.4 years.
“While TESS is a source of power for the discovery of planets orbiting bright stars nearby, its observational strategy can also lead to extremely exciting additional scientific discoveries,” PADS scientist Padi Boyd of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. “
On September 26, 2018, 46P/Wirtanen exploded, and researchers saw a huge flash, and the process lasted an hour, followed by a slower eruption that lasted eight hours. As the comet approaches the sun, its temperature begins to rise, which may be the cause of its spewing gas and ice, but random eruptions like this are unusual and little is known about it.
“With 20 days of frequent imaging, we can easily assess changes in brightness,” said Tony Farnham, an astronomer at the University of Maryland. That’s what TESS was designed for, and its main mission was an exoplanet surveyor. “
By studying changes in the brightness of TESS images, the team was able to use reverse derivation to better understand the Big Bang of Wirtanen. Given that TESS can take pictures every 30 minutes, this provides a huge window of opportunity for studying Wirtanen.
The team speculated that the comet may have ejected about 1 million kilograms of material. In addition, it may even have created a 65-foot-wide crater. However, exactly what caused this particular eruption remains unknown — and the team hopes to find more examples in the universe to solve the mystery.