Skip Navigation

Produced by the Office of Strategic Communications

Subscribe Now

UMD Astronomers Catch a Natural Comet Outburst in Unprecedented Detail

University of Maryland astronomers have made the most complete and detailed observations to date of the formation and dissipation of a naturally occurring comet outburst.

Using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the researchers gained a clear start-to-finish image sequence of an explosive emission of dust, ice and gases during the close approach to Earth of comet 46P/Wirtanen in late 2018. The team members recently reported their results in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

According to Tony Farnham, a research scientist in the Department of Astronomy and lead author of the study, the TESS observations of comet Wirtanen were the first to capture all phases of a natural comet outburst, from beginning to end

Farnham and his colleagues, astronomy associate research scientists Michael Kelley, Matthew Knight and Lori Feaga, are also the first to observe Wirtanen’s dust trail. Unlike a comet’s tail—the spray of gas and fine dust that follows behind a comet, growing as it approaches the sun—a comet’s trail is a field of larger debris that traces the comet’s orbital path as it travels around the sun. Unlike a tail, which changes direction as it is blown by the solar wind, the orientation of the trail stays more or less constant over time.

Find the full news release on the study here.

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.