Bearing more than triple the size of Mount Everest, a gargantuan comet famously known as the ‘devil comet’ is once again blasting its way through the cosmos en route to Earth. The celestial entity, dubbed 12P/Pons-Brooks, spans an impressive 18 miles in diameter. It’s often likened to a ‘frigid volcano’ due to its explosive discharge of ice and gas.
As it barrels through space at unimaginable speeds, the comet leaves behind a trail of material that uncannily takes the form of a pair of devil horns. Observers first noted this awe-inspiring space rock in 1812. Its anticipated closest approach to Earth is slated for June 2024, but rest assured, it will remain safe from our planet.
When it reaches its closest point, stargazers can spot 12P/Pons-Brooks with the naked eye. It will appear as a faint, star-like entity with a blurry tail. Within the core of a comet, or nucleus, lie ice, dust, and tiny rocky particles. This nucleus is encapsulated by a ‘coma,’ a gaseous cloud that forms the comet’s outer layer.
12P/Pons-Brooks is classified as a cryovolcanic comet characterized by its volcanic activity. Unlike Earth’s volcanoes that spew molten rock and lava, a cryovolcanic comet ejects a combination of gases and ice.
As a cryovolcanic comet-like 12P/Pons-Brooks approaches the sun, its temperature rises, leading to a pressure buildup within the nucleus. This pressure eventually produces a powerful explosion of nitrogen and carbon monoxide, hurling icy fragments through large crevices in the nucleus’s surface.
These gaseous streams can form distinct shapes when viewed through a telescope, including devil horns, a horseshoe, or even resembling the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars. Eliot Herman, an amateur astronomer based in Arizona, has been tracking the comet and reported a sudden increase in brightness, indicating a new eruption of cryovolcanic activity.
This eruption is the third burst from 12P/Pons-Brooks since July, leading to its nickname as the “devil comet.” Like planets, comets in our solar system orbit the sun, drawn by the massive gravitational pull.
It takes 12P/Pons-Brooks 71 years to complete a full orbit, a relatively short duration compared to other celestial bodies. Due to their ‘elliptical’ orbits, comets come very close to the sun at one point and drift away at another.
As the ‘devil comet’ 12P/Pons-Brooks propels towards the sun and Earth at over 40,000 miles per hour, this speed could ramp up to over 100,000 miles per hour as the sun nears. 12P/Pons-Brooks is expected to be as close as 72.5 million miles to the sun on April 21 next year.
Post its close encounter with Earth, the ‘devil comet’ will be gravitationally propelled back into the outer solar system, with its next return predicted for 2095.