NASA’s “most powerful space telescope” discovers water and a new mystery in a mysterious comet
the date : 2023-05-17 (02:43 PM)
| by: Abdel Khalek Kamel
The James Webb Space Telescope has detected water around a rare comet in the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.
The observation represents another scientific breakthrough for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), marking the first time gas, in this case water vapor, has been detected around a comet in the main asteroid belt. This is important because it shows that water in the early solar system could have been preserved as ice in the main asteroid belt.
Michael Kelly, an astronomer at the University of Maryland who led the research, said: “In the past, we’ve seen objects in the main belt with all the characteristics of comets, but only with this precise spectroscopic data from James Webb can we say yes, it’s definitely water ice that’s creating this.” “With James Webb’s observations of comet 238P/Read, we can now demonstrate that water ice from the early solar system can be preserved in the asteroid belt.”
The discovery of water vapor around comet 238P/Read could significantly bolster theories that water, a vital ingredient for life, was delivered to our planet from space by comets. But studying the comet also presented a mystery: the carbon dioxide that astronomers had expected to see is missing from the comet.
The apparent lack of carbon dioxide around comet 238P/Read surprised the team more than the discovery of water vapor, as this compound was previously calculated to make up up to 10 percent of the volatile matter in sun-heated comets.
The team said there are two possible reasons behind 238P/Read’s loss of carbon dioxide. First, the comet may have contained carbon dioxide during its formation, which it lost due to warming by the sun.
“Being in the asteroid belt for a long time could do that – carbon dioxide evaporates more easily than water ice and can seep out over billions of years,” Kelly said.
A second, alternative CO2 deficiency theory is that this main asteroid belt may have formed in a region of the solar system devoid of compound.
As its name suggests, the main asteroid belt is primarily home to rocky bodies such as asteroids. However, it also hosts the occasional comet-like object such as 238P/Read.
These objects can be identified by the fact that they periodically light up as a halo of material, or a coma, surrounds them. They can also develop tail matter characteristic of comets.
The comet’s coma and tail come from solid icy material, which turns directly into gas through a process called sublimation when comets approach the sun and heat up. This sublimation is the reason why astronomers assume that all comets come from the Kuiper belt far from Neptune, or the Oort cloud, which is believed to exist at the edge of the solar system. Both locations will provide water ice in these bodies protection from solar radiation, allowing it to be preserved, while the location closest to the sun near Mars may not.
The classification of “main-belt comets” (objects orbiting within the main asteroid belt that exhibit cometary activity during part of their orbit, such as the tail and coma) is fairly new, and Comet 238P/Read was one of three objects that helped form the family of near-Earth comets. .
And astronomers weren’t sure if these icy bodies could also be clinging to frozen water. This is the first hard evidence that it can.
Observing the comet in such detail is a remarkable achievement for the powerful space telescope, and marks the first time gas has been confirmed in “main belt comets.”
“Our world full of water, full of life and unique in the universe as far as we know, is something of a mystery – we’re not sure how all that water got here,” Stephanie Milam, research co-author and James Webb deputy project scientist, said in a statement. Understanding the history of water distribution in the solar system helps understanding other planetary systems and whether they are on their way to hosting an Earth-like planet.”
The team’s detailed research has been published in the journal Nature.
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