NASA’s TESS Watched an Outburst from Comet 46P/Wirtanen

Universe Today | 9/26/2018 | Staff
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TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, has imaged an outburst from the comet 46P/Wirtanen. It caught the outburst in what NASA is calling the clearest images yet of a comet outburst from start to finish. A comet outburst is a significant but temporary increase in the comet’s activity, outside of the normal sunlight-driven vaporization of ices that creates a comet’s coma and tail.

Astronomers aren’t certain what causes them, but a new study based on this observation is shedding some light on them.

TESS - Comets - Job - Dips - Starlight

TESS is not meant to study comets. Its job is to spot dips in starlight when an exoplanet passes, or transits, in front of a star. But because it has such a wide field of view, and because it watches one section of sky for over 27 days, it also captures other transient phenomena like this comet outburst.

The study outlining this comet outburst was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on November 22nd. The study is titled “First Results from TESS Observations of Comet 46P/Wirtanen.” Tony Farnham, a research scientist at the University of Maryland’s Department of Astronomy is the lead author.

TESS - Month - Time - Portion - Sky

“TESS spends nearly a month at a time imaging one portion of the sky. With no day or night breaks and no atmospheric interference, we have a very uniform, long-duration set of observations,” Farnham said in a press release.

“As comets orbit the Sun, they can pass through TESS’ field of view. Wirtanen was a high priority for us because of its close approach in late 2018, so we decided to use its appearance in the TESS images as a test case to see what we could get out of it. We did so and were very surprised!,” said Farnham.

Comets - Bodies - Solar - System - Ice

Comets are small bodies in the Solar System with significant ice content. They normally follow long elliptical orbits that take...
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