NASA's Swift Monitors Departing Comet Garradd

An outbound comet that provided a nice show for skywatchers late last year is the target of an ongoing investigation by NASA's Swift satellite. Formally designated C/2009 P1 (Garradd), the unusually dust-rich comet provides a novel opportunity to characterize how cometary activity changes at ever greater distance from the sun.

A comet is a clump of frozen gases mixed with dust. These "dirty snowballs" cast off gas and dust whenever they venture near the sun. What powers this activity is frozen water transforming from solid ice to gas, a process called sublimation. Jets powered by ice sublimation release dust, which reflects sunlight and brightens the comet. Typically, a comet's water content remains frozen until it comes within about three times Earth's distance to the sun, or 3 astronomical units (AU), so astronomers regard this as the solar system's "snow line."

"Comet Garradd was producing lots of dust and gas well before it reached the snow line, which tells us that the activity was powered by something other than water ice," said Dennis Bodewits, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the study's lead investigator. "We plan to use Swift's unique capabilities to monitor Garradd as it moves beyond the snow line, where few comets are studied."

Comets are known to contain other frozen gases, such as carbon monoxide and dioxide (CO and CO2), which sublimate at colder temperatures and much farther from the sun. These are two of the leading candidates for driving cometary activity beyond the snow line, but phase transitions between different forms of water ice also may come into play.

C/2009 P1 was discovered by Gordon J. Garradd at Siding Spring Observatory, Australia, in August 2009. Astronomers say that the comet is "dynamically new," meaning that this is likely its first trip through the inner solar system since it arrived in the Oort cloud, the cometary cold-storage zone located thousands of AU beyond the sun.

Comet Garradd was closest to the sun on Dec. 23, 2011, and passed within 118 million miles (1.27 AU) of Earth on March 5, 2012. The comet remains observable in small telescopes this month as it moves south though the constellations Ursa Major and Lynx.

Although Swift's prime task is to detect and rapidly locate gamma-ray bursts in the distant universe, novel targets of opportunity allow the mission to show off its versatility. One of Swift's instruments, the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) is ideally suited for studying comets.

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