Space

July 26, 2013

NASA’s WISE finds mysterious centaurs may be Comets

The true identity of centaurs, the small celestial bodies orbiting the sun between Jupiter and Neptune, is one of the enduring mysteries of astrophysics.

Are they asteroids or comets? A new study of observations from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer finds most centaurs are comets.

Until now, astronomers were not certain whether centaurs are asteroids flung out from the inner solar system or comets traveling in toward the sun from afar. Because of their dual nature, they take their name from the creature in Greek mythology whose head and torso are human and legs are those of a horse.

“Just like the mythical creatures, the centaur objects seem to have a double life,” said James Bauer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Bauer is lead author of a paper published online July 22 in the Astrophysical Journal. “Our data point to a cometary origin for most of the objects, suggesting they are coming from deeper out in the solar system.”

Cometary origin means an object likely is made from the same material as a comet, may have been an active comet in the past, and may be active again in the future.

The findings come from the largest infrared survey to date of centaurs and their more distant cousins, called scattered disk objects. NEOWISE, the asteroid-hunting portion of the WISE mission, gathered infrared images of 52 centaurs and scattered disk objects. Fifteen of the 52 are new discoveries. Centaurs and scattered disk objects orbit in an unstable belt. Ultimately, gravity from the giant planets will fling them either closer to the sun or farther away from their current locations.

Although astronomers previously observed some centaurs with dusty halos, a common feature of outgassing comets, and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope also found some evidence for comets in the group, they had not been able to estimate the numbers of comets and asteroids.

Infrared data from NEOWISE provided information on the objects’ albedos, or reflectivity, to help astronomers sort the population. NEOWISE can tell whether a centaur has a matte and dark surface or a shiny one that reflects more light. The puzzle pieces fell into place when astronomers combined the albedo information with what was already known about the colors of the objects. Visible-light observations have shown centaurs generally to be either blue-gray or reddish in hue. A blue-gray object could be an asteroid or comet. NEOWISE showed that most of the blue-gray objects are dark, a telltale sign of comets. A reddish object is more likely to be an asteroid.

“Comets have a dark, soot-like coating on their icy surfaces, making them darker than most asteroids,” said the study’s co-author, Tommy Grav of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Ariz. “Comet surfaces tend to be more like charcoal, while asteroids are usually shinier like the moon.”

The results indicate that roughly two-thirds of the centaur population is comets which came from the frigid outer reaches of our solar system. It is not clear whether the rest are asteroids. The centaur bodies have not lost their mystique entirely, but future research from NEOWISE may reveal their secrets further.

The paper is available online at:  http://iopscience.iop.org/0004-637X/773/1/22/

JPL, managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, managed and operated WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The NEOWISE portion of the project was funded by NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation Program. WISE completed its key mission objective, two scans of the entire sky, in 2011 and has been hibernating in space since then.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

President proclaims Memorial Day as ‘Day of Prayer’

President Barack Obama May 22 saluted the service and sacrifices of America’s military members–past and present–and proclaimed Memorial Day, May 25, 2015, “as a day of prayer for permanent peace, and I designate the hour beginning in each locality at 11 a.m. of that day as a time during which people may unite in prayer....
 
 

Air Force leaders’ Memorial Day message

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III send the following Memorial Day message to the Airmen of the Air Force and their families: To the Airmen of the United States Air Force and their Families: On Memorial Day, Americans pause in solemn remembrance...
 
 

Headlines May 22, 2015

News: Second Marine killed in Hawaii Osprey crash identified - Marine Corps officials have identified the second Marine to die as a result of the May 17 MV-22B Osprey crash as Lance Cpl. Matthew J. Determan of Maricopa, Ariz.   Business: Israel defense exports plunge to seven-year low - Israeli defense sales last year plunged to their...
 

 

News Briefs May 22, 2015

Ukrainian officer hit with third charge in Russia A third charge has been filed against a Ukrainian military officer who has been behind bars in Moscow for nearly a year over the deaths of two Russian journalists in Ukraine. Nadezhda Savchenko, who worked as a spotter for Ukrainian troops fighting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine,...
 
 
Army photograph by C. Todd Lopez

Smart-mortar will help Soldiers more effectively hit targets

Army photograph by C. Todd Lopez Nick Baldwin and Evan Young, researchers with the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, Pennsylvania, discuss the 120mm Guided Enhanced Fragmentation Mortar ...
 
 

Air Force assigns new chief scientist

The Air Force announced the service’s new chief scientist to serve as a science and technology adviser to the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff of the Air Force, May 21. Dr. Greg Zacharias will be the 35th chief scientist and is ready to “dive in” to his new role. “I...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>