YOU ARE HERE: Home > News & Press > News archive > News 2008 > RAS PN 08/21 (NAM 12): Planet finder catches a comet

I want information on:

Information for:

NEWS ARCHIVE

RAS PN 08/21 (NAM 12): Planet finder catches a comet

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 April 2010 18:29
Published on Wednesday, 02 April 2008 00:01
Last October, astronomers all over the world were astounded when the normally very faint Comet Holmes erupted in the largest outburst for more than a century. Speaking at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast on Wednesday 2 April, Queen’s University Belfast astronomer Dr. Henry Hsieh will describe how a UK telescope was in the right place at the right time to capture the first images of this once-in-a-lifetime event.

ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY PRESS INFORMATION NOTE

EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 BST, 2 April 2008

Date:  28 March 2008
Ref.: PN 08/21 (NAM 12)

Issued by RAS Press Officers:

Dr Robert Massey
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 / 4582  
Mobile: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Anita Heward
Tel: +44 (0)1483 420904
Mobile: +44 (0)7756 034243
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

NATIONAL ASTRONOMY MEETING PRESS ROOM (31 MARCH - 4 APRIL ONLY):
Tel: +44 (0)2890 975262
                            975263
                            975264

NAM 2008

Royal Astronomical Society

CONTACT DETAILS ARE LISTED AT THE END OF THIS RELEASE

RAS PN 08/21 (NAM 12) (EMBARGOED): PLANET FINDER CATCHES A COMET

Last October, astronomers all over the world were astounded when the normally very faint Comet Holmes erupted in the largest outburst for more than a century. Speaking at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast on Wednesday 2 April, Queen’s University Belfast astronomer Dr. Henry Hsieh will describe how a UK telescope was in the right place at the right time to capture the first images of this once-in-a-lifetime event.

The SuperWASP-North facility on the island of La Palma was built by UK scientists to discover planets around other stars. The 8 cameras that make up the system operate robotically, automatically scanning large areas of the sky each night. By coincidence, at 2339 GMT on the evening of 24 October 2007, it was pointing towards Comet 17P Holmes.

“By the time SuperWASP spotted the comet, it had already brightened by a factor of 1000," explains Dr. Hsieh. "But this was still almost 3 hours before anyone else noticed it." (That honour belongs to amateur astronomer Juan Antonio Henriquez Santana who saw the eruption from Tenerife).

Over the next 2 hours the comet continued brightening, until SuperWASP could no longer accurately measure it - it was too bright for the cameras!

Comets are bodies orbiting the Sun composed of frozen gases and microscopic solid particles in a small solid nucleus. When they come close to the Sun, they heat up and some of the icy material turns to gas, producing characteristic tails. But during this outburst, Comet Holmes released a large amount of its material all at once.

Two days after the eruption began, sunlight reflecting from the ejected material had made the comet one million times brighter than it was originally making it easily visible to observers across the northern hemisphere.

Dr. Hsieh comments "Over the next few weeks, SuperWASP continued to observe Comet Holmes as the cloud of dust and gas surrounding the 3-km diameter nucleus of the comet steadily expanded.  By 31st October, the cloud was already 900,000 km across or more than twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

‘Using our SuperWASP observations, we measured the speed of expansion of the outer edge of this cloud to be over 1500 km per hour and by 17 November measured the size of the cloud to be more than 2 million km across - much larger than the Sun."

Two weeks after the outburst, SuperWASP captured an added bonus – the faint and delicate tail of the comet composed of the gas released from the nucleus. As astronomers watched over the next few weeks, this tail gradually faded and moved away from the comet.

Although many images were gathered by astronomers around the world, the precise cause of the outburst is still a mystery. All they know right now is that it happened once before - in 1892 - and may well happen again.


IMAGES AND ANIMATIONS

Images and animations of Comet Holmes from SuperWASP

FURTHER INFORMATION

SuperWASP

Astrophysics Research Centre, Queen’s University Belfast

RAS National Astronomy Meeting

RAS home page

STFC home page

NOTES FOR EDITORS

The SuperWASP-North facility is operated by the WASP consortium, which consists of representatives from Queens University Belfast, the University of Cambridge (Wide Field Astronomy Unit), Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (La Palma), the University of Keele, the University of Leicester, the Open University, the University of St Andrews and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

The SuperWASP-North and -South instruments were constructed and are operated with funds made available from consortium universities and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. SuperWASP-North is located in the Spanish Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, Canary Islands which is operated by the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC).

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2008) is hosted by Queen’s University Belfast. It is principally sponsored by the RAS and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). NAM 2008 is being held together with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) spring meetings.

CONTACTS

Dr Henry Hsieh
Astrophysics Research Centre
School of Mathematics and Physics
Queen’s University Belfast
University Road
Belfast BT7 1NN
UK
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Tel: +44 (0)28 9097 3692

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons
Astrophysics Research Centre
School of Mathematics and Physics
Queen’s University Belfast
University Road
Belfast BT7 1NN
UK
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Tel: +44 (0)28 9097 3124