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Astronomers discover comets may be more fragile than previously believed

Echeclus is strange, because it had many outbursts and once lost a big chunk of its nucleus.

Tampa, FL (June 30, 2017) - Dr. Maria Womack from the University of South Florida is lead investigator of a study on the Centaur “Echeclus,” which is a peculiar minor planet in our solar system.

“Echeclus is rare because it behaves both like an asteroid and a comet,” said Womack, a research professor of physics. “It is called a Centaur, because it chaotically orbits the Sun between Jupiter and Neptune.”

Image credit: UCF/FSI, J. Woodward and G. Sarid.

Comets and asteroids are city-sized objects made of ice and rock that orbit the Sun. If they emit dust and gas, then they are called comets. This normally happens only when they are close to the Sun, where it’s warm enough to heat up the ices.

Echeclus is strange, because it had many outbursts and once lost a big chunk of its nucleus.

“Echeclus may help us understand the unusual physical behavior of icy bodies far from the Sun,” Womack said. “It may aid space explorers plan for their travels – things to avoid and perhaps hidden resources found within the nucleus of comets that may be useful on deep space missions.”

Dr. Womack, her graduate student Kacper Wierzchos and Dr. Gal Sarid of University of Central Florida discovered Echeclus is emitting the poisonous gas carbon monoxide, but just barely. They found it gives off 40 times less carbon monoxide than other comets of the same distance from the sun.

“This deficiency may mean that Echeclus had less carbon monoxide to begin with, or it may have just spent it more freely over its lifetime,” Wierzchos said.

It may also signal that there is a correlation between low CO outgassing and its risk of falling apart. The team used the Arizona Radio Observatory SMT telescope for the observations. This work is funded by a National Science Foundation grant to the University of South Florida.

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