US Naval Research Lab Captures Stunning View of “Christmas Comet” Leonard Fly By
Comet Leaonard captured by the HI-2 telescope of NASA’s Solar Observatory for Earth Relations-A (STEREO), which has been observing the comet since early November. This animated “difference image” was created by subtracting the current image from the previous image to highlight the differences between them. The difference images are useful for seeing subtle changes in Leonard’s ion tail (the trail of ionized gases exiting the comet’s body, or nucleus), which becomes longer and brighter towards the end of the clip.
December 29, 2021 – WASHINGTON – By Paul Cage, US Naval Research Laboratory Corporate Communications – Scientists at the US Naval Research Laboratory assess early data that the ESA / NASA Solar Orbiter spacecraft returned to Earth as it observes Comet Leonard, a mass of space dust, rock and ice just over a kilometer in diameter as it ‘she walks towards the sun.
Karl Battams, Ph.D Credit: NRL
Images captured between December 17 and 19 by the NRL Solar Orbiter Heliospheric Imager (SoloHI) on board of ESA/Nasa The Solar Orbiter spacecraft shows Comet Leonard crossing the field of view diagonally. The planets Venus and Mercury are also visible in the upper right, with Venus appearing brighter and moving from left to right.
“When SoloHI recorded these images, the comet was approximately between the Sun and the spacecraft, with its gas (ion) and dust tails pointing towards the spacecraft,” Karl Battams, Ph.D., a computer scientist in the heliospheric physics section at LNR, said. “Towards the end of the image sequence, our sight of both tails improves as the viewing angle at which we see the comet increases, and SoloHI gets a side view of the comet.”
Two other observation platforms, the Parker solar probe and the Observatory of terrestrial solar relations, are looking at the comet from very different places in space, which could give us a lot of valuable information about the 3D structure of the tail and solar fluxes.
âWe hope to use the two views of Solar Orbiter and STEREO to achieve 3D structure and speed. ” said Robin Colaninno, Ph.D., astrophysicist and SoloHI PI at the NRL. “The changes in the comet’s tail give us a good overview of solar winds.”
Comets are remnants of the swarm of planetesimals that formed the solar system and retain records from before and during the planet’s formation.
Comet Leonard, formerly known as C / 2021 A1, was discovered on January 3, 2021 by Gregory Leonard, senior research specialist at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Arizona. Leonard spotted the comet in images taken from the Mount Lemmon Aerial Center in Arizona.
Battams said there had been a lot of talk among astronomers over the past week about the comet.
“Many people have reported a significant brightening around the 14th (before the SoloHI footage) and then an alleged ‘explosion’ in the last 24 hours, with undetermined behavior in the meantime,” said Battams. âI suspect the comet is getting more and more unhappy, and these explosions could be the start of a slow and fatal disruption. But it’s too early to say for sure – it could just be a blowout, so to speak. “
SoloHI will continue to observe the comet until it leaves its field of view until December 22. Comet Leonard’s closest passage on January 3, 2021 will bring it less than 90 million kilometers from the Sun, just over half the distance from Earth. . If it does not disintegrate, current orbit calculations show that its trajectory will send it into interstellar space, never to return to our solar system.
About the US Naval Research Laboratory
The NRL is a scientific and technical command dedicated to research driving innovative advances for the US Navy and Marine Corps, from the seabed to space and in the realm of information. NRL is located in Washington, DC with major field sites at the Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; Monterey, Calif., And employs approximately 3,000 civilian scientists, engineers and support staff.
About Solar Orbiter
Solar Orbiter launched on February 10, 2020 and is on a mission to provide the first views of the Sun’s unexplored polar regions, giving unprecedented insight into how our mother star works. He will study how the intense radiation and energetic particles projected by the Sun and carried by the solar wind through the solar system impact our home planet, in order to better understand and predict periods of stormy âspace weatherâ.