Comet Flyby Captured By NASA Radars In Infrared Images

NASA radars captured haunting images of the historic comet flyby that occurred earlier this week. The shadowy images of the comet flyby, one of two occurring within the span of a week, were recorded over three days from March 21 to 23.

NASA scientists were able to take a series of images of the comet flyby by using instruments in the Deep Space Network located in Goldstone, California. The Deep Space Network is a scientific telecommunications system that was designed to link a series of massive radio antennas to the space agency’s various interplanetary missions. At the closest point of the comet flyby, the object known as P/2016 BA14 was about 2.2 million miles (or 3.6 million kilometers) from earth. That makes it the third closest comet flyby in all of recorded history. To put that fact into perspective, the last time a comet flyby came closer to earth was Lexall’s comet which did a flyby on July 1, 1770. You’d have to go back about another 400 years to find the next.

Astronomers were eager to take advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunity to analyze data from the historic comet flyby. Shantanu Naidu, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, explained in a media release.

“We were able to obtain very detailed radar images of the comet nucleus over three nights around the time of closest approach. We can see surface features as small as 8 meters per pixel.”

From the radar images, scientists were able to estimate the comet’s diameter at about 3,000 feet (or 1 kilometer). The comet appears to have an irregular, pear-like shape. Because of its relatively close proximity, during the comet flyby scientists were able to note actual features on the surface of the comet such as flat regions and ridges, along with its overall shape. Other fascinating data emerged from the comet flyby captures, including the fact that P/2016 BA14 seems to spin around its axis about every 35 to 40 hours.

The comet flyby was also observed via the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) located in Hawaii. Data from the telescope about P/2016 BA14 indicates that the comet is dark, reflecting only about 3 percent of the sunlight that hits its surface. It is common for newly formed comets to be as dark as asphalt.

Comet P/2016 BA14 is also known as Comet Pan-STARRS (or Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) after the infrared telescope that first discovered it on January 21 of this year. The comet was originally thought to be an asteroid; however, when they noticed that its orbit was similar to that of another comet named 252P/LINEAR, scientists now speculate that the twin comets are actually two parts of a larger space object that split up some time ago. Comet 252P/LINEAR first passed by earth last week and was only visible in the southern hemisphere. It will execute a second comet flyby visible to the northern hemisphere on March 29.

Using the data, astronomers are hoping to hone in on clues as to the origins of the comet, and by extension, other planetary bodies. Jian-Yang Li, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, explained the significance of the twin comet flyby in a prepared release.

“It is an extremely rare opportunity to be able to study a pair of comets with historically close flybys. Measuring the physical properties of both comets will help us understand the evolution of comets in general.”

The comets aren’t the only object that will pass close to earth this coming week. Along with the twin comet flyby, asteroid 2016 BC14 – classified as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid” – is set to pass by the earth at a distance of about 2.38 million miles or 3.84 million kilometers on March 29.

[Image via NASA]