X-rays from comets

Comet passing the Orion Nebula as seen by Swift
Comet passing the Orion Nebula as seen by Swift

Comets are cold and icy objects that go around our Sun, usually with very little energy to do much of anything. So I was very surprised to hear that the gamma-ray space observatory Swift detected X-rays from comets. X-rays can only emitted in high-energy processes, so how could something as unenergetic as a comet produce them? It was even more surprising to me when I learned that X-rays from comets were already discovered in 1996 by ROSAT.

It turns out that it's not the comets themselves that are the source of the energy. It's actually the Sun that's the source of all the energy, just like for almost everything else in the Solar System. The Sun emits a solar wind made out of very high-energy particles, and when such a particle hits a comet, it can strip an electron from an atom that is part of the comet. A high-energy photon, i.e. an X-ray, can be emitted in this process.

This happens to be the same process that generates energetic neutral atoms at the boundaries of the heliosphere, which are what IBEX observes to learn about the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space.

Mystery of Comet Holmes

Comet Holmes
Comet Holmes

The Spitzer Space Telescope has taken images of Comet Holmes, the comet that suddenly flared late last year during its six-year orbit around the Sun. The last time the comet erupted was over a hundred years ago, and astronomers are puzzled by what may have caused it to suddenly explode and brighten a millionfold. The comet is also odd in that the streamers from the comet are no longer pointing away from the Sun as in most active comets.

I wonder what might be causing the comet to flare? Crazy idea: the comet is a run-down automated starship that is trying to fix itself over a hundred year period but shoddy repairs cause the engine to sputter out. Mundane idea: chemical reactions within the comet steadily raise pressure until it explodes. A confession: I don't really have a clue.