Astronomers have identified a new kind of tailless “Manx” comet that they believe could hold the key to Earth’s early life. The comet is completely unique in that it is tailless and is made of the same material as Earth. The tailless comet was aptly named a “Manx” comet, after the breed of cat that does not have a tail. Unlike normal comets, the C/2014 S3 likely formed near Earth and is not composed of the standard ice and frozen dust that astronomers typically see in comets. Therefore, Earth’s “brother” is likely a completely unique new space form that researchers hope will offer clues into Earth’s birth and early life.
Much like historical research, a lot can be learned by knowing about someone’s close family members. The same holds true for celestial bodies. Space.com notes that astronomers believe they found a close relative of Earth that could have been formed near Earth in the inner solar system. The unique comet, which is tailless, is made of rocky material that has an Earth-like appearance. This rocky appearance is in stark contrast to most comets, which are made of ice and frozen compounds.
Comet Manx: Tail-less and as old as Earth… https://t.co/KwBWnECasq pic.twitter.com/Thk9WRV2i9
— Particle Science (@ParticleSci) May 2, 2016
This leads astronomers to believe that comet C/2014 S3 is not your standard comet created in the frigid far reaches of space. Instead, the comet was likely birthed right here by Earth and thrown out due to gravitational forces from the inner planets. The study lead author for the C/2014 S3 comet, Karen Meech, an astronomer at the University of Hawaii, says that discovery of the unique comet was thrilling and the whole reason she went into the field of science.
“I always tell my students that science is 99-percent hard work, sometimes tedious, because the details really matter. But there is 1 percent of the time where there is the thrill of excitement, when you discover something new and unexpected and you know it is important. This was one of those times!”
— Reuters World (@ReutersWorld) April 29, 2016
Meech notes that this newly discovered class of comets, the Manx, may hold the very keys to understanding how our early solar system formed. While most comets are created in the Oort cloud, C/2014 S3 does not appear to be one of them, despite its estimated 860-year-long orbit. Most comets within this orbit range have tails that get longer as they approach the sun due to their icy body’s exposure to Earth’s sun. However, the new Manx comet did not exhibit this behavior indicting that it was not ice-rich like most Oort Cloud comets.
— Trend Setter (@TrendGoblin) May 1, 2016
This observation led the researchers to look into other possibilities. The Tech Times notes that researchers have long known of asteroids made of the same materials as Earth. However, they have long been burned up by the sun. The Manx comet is the first observable piece of material in space made up of material similar to Earth that has not been destroyed by sun exposure. The comet seems to have been preserved by remaining in the frigid regions of the solar system’s edge, making it a prime study material for early Earth research.
“We already knew of many asteroids, but they have all been baked by billions of years near the Sun. This one is the first uncooked asteroid we have found: It has been preserved in the best freezer there is.”
With the comet believed to have been formed during the solar system’s early planet formation before being expelled to the outer reaches of the solar system by the planets’ gravitational force, the researchers are hoping to examine the Manx comet to see if it may reveal any previously unknown secrets about the formation of Earth billions of years ago.
[Image via ESO/L. Calçada]