A massive, Mount Everest-sized comet dubbed the “Devil Comet” is hurtling towards Earth and could explosively erupt in space today, according to scientists.
Background on the ‘Devil Comet’
The comet, officially named 12P/Pons-Brooks, was discovered in 1812 and makes a close approach to Earth every roughly 12 years as it orbits the Sun. It was nicknamed the “Devil Comet” after astronomers observed two straight horn-like structures protruding from its icy nucleus, giving it a sinister, devilish appearance.
At over 100 km wide, the comet is bigger than Mount Everest and is considered a “city killer” due to its potential to cause catastrophic damage if it impacted Earth. Thankfully, this flyby will keep the comet about 26 million miles away at its closest approach.
Predicting Another Eruption
Two weeks ago on December 16, the icy comet unexpectedly erupted in a cosmic light show visible from Earth. Debris and gas escaping from below the surface formed a hazy cloud thousands of miles across around the comet.
Now, astronomers predict the comet could erupt again today, December 31, as part of a natural cycle.
“The comet seems to regularly explode every dozen or so days, with today being the next likely eruption date,” said Dr. Ed Brook, an astrophysicist studying the comet at Yonsei University. “We believe cracks in its icy crust build up pressure from evaporating ice as it approaches the Sun, until it eventually vents material and repeats.”
Understanding the eruption mechanism of comets provides insights into early solar system formation over 4 billion years ago. “This comet preserves ancient ices we think are similar to what our planetary neighborhood was made of,” Dr. Brook explained.
Viewing the Cosmic Phenomenon
While safely distant, the erupting Devil Comet should put on a memorable New Years Eve sky show visible to the unaided eye and backyard telescopes.
“Amateur astronomers should absolutely monitor the comet this weekend when an explosion is anticipated,” advised Dr. Brook. “It could flare up to naked eye visibility and produce a temporary expansive coma, or atmosphere of gas and dust glowing beautifully in the sunlight.” Photography and observations by citizen scientists can help researchers better study and model the comet’s intriguing repetitive eruption cycle.
What Happens Next?
After today’s expected event, astronomers will continue tracking the comet as it makes its closest pass by Earth early Monday, January 1st 2024.
Though not considered a collision threat, Dr. Brook said the massive comet’s unpredictable behavior does raise some concern: “It seems to flare up without much warning, suggesting models underestimate threats from volatile comets.” Future flybys will be closely monitored in case the eruptions evolve to blast fragments towards our planet.
“We really need more observations to better characterize the potential risk as the Devil Comet cycles back through again in 2035,” stressed Dr. Brook. For now, its tantalizing explosions give astronomers the chance to unveil secrets about our early solar system while putting on a safe but spooky show.
|December 16, 2023
|First observed eruption
|December 31, 2023
|Predicted second eruption
|January 1, 2024
|Closest approach to Earth
|Next flyby of Earth
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