The so-called “Devil Comet” is barreling past Earth and exploding on its way around the sun, but a researcher who studies such phenomenon told Insider that while the comet is large and unusual, its menacing name — a reference to the appearance of horns — does not mean it poses any threat to the third planet from the sun.
Known to scientists as 12P/Pons-Brooks, the comet last made an appearance in Earth’s skies more than 70 years ago. Judging by its brightness, astronomers have estimated that the solid part of the comet, or its nucleus, is about 12. 4 miles across — roughly twice the size of Mount Everest.
Typically, comets are between 0. 6 and 1. 8 miles wide, according to Teddy Kareta, a postdoctoral researcher at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“We are aware of its size. We’re aware that it is an anomaly. We know it’s rare,” Kareta told Insider.
We also know it is likely to be most visible next spring, but not because it’s barreling toward Earth in another extinction-level event. In fact, Kareta said, at its closest the comet will still be about one-and-half astronomical units away, or put another away: even further from Earth than the sun.
“It may be bright enough to see it with binoculars or your naked eyes, but this is not because the comet will be so close. “It’s because it’s just generally very bright.”
Indeed, the comet is both bright and highly unusual. Scientists still don’t understand how the comet formed its “horns”, which are tails of dust and gas. This year, two such explosions were observed: the first one in July and then this past month.
An ‘outburst,’ according to Kareta is when comets become more active and emit tons of dust and gas in a very short time. He said that when this occurs, the comet “brightens very rapidly” and then fades to its previous brightness. “And in Pons-Brooks, these are really, really bright — really, really large outbursts. And this is what makes this comet so interesting to scientists.”
These outbursts have been particularly interesting due to their frequency and where they occurred. One theory is that comets contain forms of ice that, when exposed for the first time to heat from the sun, cause volatile explosions. But those explosions have typically been observed closer to the sun, and not often. According to Kareta, “it might happen twice in five years.”
The Pons-Brooks comet, by contrast, is exploding relatively often and, confoundingly, far away from the sun. Kareta said that it is currently farther away than Mars where, “it’s not as warm.” This raises the questions: “Where does the energy come from to power these large explosions?” And the fact that it can apparently do so many, so often?”
The comet is expected to reach peak brightness in mid-April 2024 as it continues on its 71. 2-year journey around the sun. Professional and amateur astronomers alike are eagerly anticipating it.
“I believe a lot people are excited about it,” Kareta stated.