Comets is a frequent and beautiful occurrence in outer space, and a study recently outlined plans for how scientists could see them being created in real time. As it has been proven time and time again, the mysteries of space are constantly fascinating. Planets in our solar system have many stories to tell, distant galaxies hold innumerable other secrets, and there is a constant driving force in the scientific community to uncover as many of these as possible.
Thanks to the constantly advanced technology, every day brings us closer to answering previously unresolved questions. In 2021 alone, there have been several milestones in the space research world. Endurance collected the first Mars rock sample that will be returned to Earth, InSight created the first inner map of Mars, and Ingenuity became the first helicopter to fly on an alien planet. In that context, it is almost inconceivable to think about what we will be able to achieve in 5, 10 or 50 years.
Thanks to a new study from the University of Chicago, scientists have now outlined plans for astronomers to follow the creation of a comet from start to finish. More specifically, the study describes how we could document the comet’s creation that takes place in Jupiter’s orbit. As described by the author of the paper, Darryl Seligman, “This would be a great opportunity to see a pristine comet ‘turn on’ for the first time.”
Comets and asteroids appear in many places in our solar system. There is a well-known asteroid belt near Mars along with the Kuiper Belt just beyond Neptune’s orbit. One destination that is less understood is an area between Jupiter and Neptune. Between the two planets is a group of ‘centaurs’ – large pieces of ice that are from the earliest days of the solar system. Every now and then, these centaurs are drawn into Jupiter’s orbit, shot toward Earth, and transformed into amazing comets whizzing through space.
Although this whole process is still relatively unknown, Seligman believes there is an easy way to document it. In short, humans could send a spaceship to Jupiter and make it stay there in its orbit. So when a centaur enters orbit and eventually leaves, the spacecraft can also leave Jupiter and fly with the centaur to see its entire journey. It may sound like a distant idea, but as the study explains, all the necessary technology already exists. NASA’s Juno orbit revolves around Jupiter at this moment, and a Japanese spacecraft returned samples from an asteroid late last year. The timing is also in line. It only takes about five years to get a spacecraft from Earth to Jupiter’s orbit. Scientists have already confirmed that another centaur will enter Jupiter’s orbit in 2063. On top of that, there is reason to believe that another 10 centaurs may also enter orbit within the next 40 years.
Along with the fact that the mission is technically possible, Seligman also uses the survey to double down on why it is so important to act on. As he puts it, “It would provide a treasure trove of information on how comets move and why, how the solar system formed, and even how Earth-like planets form.” It’s unclear if / when a mission like this would actually happen, but here’s hoping someone at NASA (or another organization) listens to what Seligman is saying.