Imagine taking your telescope in the attic after years, dusting it off, and looking at the sky on a clear night. With enough luck, you will see a unique event worth sharing with the scientific community. That event you captured with your telescope later becomes an object of study for experts who can draw exciting and novel conclusions. The amateur astronomer community helps and feeds scientific research. Millions of curious eyes scan every part of the sky, looking for (and finding) new objects of study. For example, an amateur astronomer detected the volcanic activity of a comet in recent days.
The science and other stuff to know
The comet Schwassmann-Wachmann — also known as 29P —, named after its discoverers, is a rocky body about 60 kilometers (37 miles) in diameter with an orbit around the Sun farther than Jupiter’s. It completes a turn around the Sun in 15 Earth years. Experts speculate that this frigid comet may have been pulled closer to Jupiter by its gravity, but its home neighborhood is the Kuiper Belt.
Patrick Wiggins is an amateur astronomer who spends his time observing the sky in his spare time. On November 22, he was observing comet 29P when he noticed unusual behavior: a bright surface glow and a faded tail. He was watching a volcanic eruption on the comet’s surface.
According to the British Astronomical Association, these events are expected on comets like 29P. The largest eruption of this comet took place in September 2021. But unlike terrestrial volcanoes, these volcanoes do not spew boiling magma that melts and incinerates any surface it touches, but icy magma. They are known as “cryovolcanoes” for that reason. The comet’s icy nucleus is excited and generates an ejection of gas, dust, and cryomagma. The same thing happens on Enceladus, Saturn’s moon.
The November 22 eruption spewed at least a ton of carbon-rich material at about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) per hour and left a 56,000-kilometer (34,800-mile) tail.
The researchers are not sure what causes the cycles of volcanic activity of this type of body. Still, with the observational record of its eruptions over time, they have managed to draw some conclusions. They believe that the cycle may be related to the rotation of the comet — 57 days. Its orbit is somewhat circular, so it does not experience sudden approaches to the Sun.
The activity of 29P is of interest to the scientific community because the dust stored in its bowels is ejected into space during eruptions and is rich in fundamental components for life. Studying its dynamics could allow us to understand the processes that occur on Enceladus and unveil the mystery of the existence of life in the conditions that the icy moon harbors.
This observation also stimulates the curiosity and commitment of the hobbyist community, which contributes in a concrete and valuable way to scientific progress.