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Gravitational wave testbed repurposed as comet dust detector

26 April 2017 Stephen Clark

In the final months of Europe’s LISA Pathfinder mission, scientists have found an unexpected use for the trailblazing testbed for a future gravitational wave observatory by tracking the tiny dings made by microscopic particles that strike the spacecraft in deep space, exploiting the impacts to learn about the population of dust grains cast off by comets and asteroids across the solar system.

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NASA’s NEOWISE mission spies one comet, maybe two

30 December 2016 Stephen Clark

NASA’s NEOWISE mission has recently discovered some celestial objects traveling through our neighborhood, including one on the blurry line between asteroid and comet. Another — definitely a comet — might be seen with binoculars through next week.

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Undergraduate devises strategy for defending Earth from cometary impacts

18 November 2016 Astronomy Now

Qicheng Zhang is an undergraduate astrophysics major at UC Santa Barbara. A recipient of a Thomas R. McGetchin Memorial Scholarship from the Universities Space Research Association, Zhang’s award-winning work demonstrates that a comet could be manipulated to mitigate a potential impact with Earth by heating it with a high-powered laser array.

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Relationship revealed between chemicals found on comets

2 November 2016 Astronomy Now

A new study reveals similarities and relationships between certain types of chemicals found on 30 different comets, which vary widely in their overall composition compared to one another. The research is part of ongoing investigations into these primordial bodies, which contain material largely unchanged from the solar system’s birth some 4.6 billion years ago.

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Milky Way’s most-mysterious star is even stranger than astronomers thought

4 October 2016 Astronomy Now

A star known as KIC 8462852 in the constellation Cygnus has been raising eyebrows both in and outside of the scientific community for the past year. In 2015 a team of astronomers announced that the star underwent a series of very brief, non-periodic dimming events while being monitored by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. A new study has deepened the mystery.

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Rosetta mission ends with comet touchdown

30 September 2016 Stephen Clark

Europe’s Rosetta mission ended its 12-year mission Friday with a slow-speed belly-flop on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, concluding an interplanetary odyssey that gave humanity a first close-up introduction to a class of objects which has stimulated imaginations for millennia.

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Solving the mystery of how comets are born

29 July 2016 Astronomy Now

Detailed analysis of data collected from Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft show that comets are the ancient leftovers of early solar system formation, and not younger fragments resulting from subsequent collisions between other, larger bodies.

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Detection of methanol shows comets are forming in distant solar system

16 June 2016 Astronomy Now

Astronomers have found the organic molecule methyl alcohol, or methanol, in the protoplanetary disc of TW Hydrae, 175 light-years from Earth — the first such detection of this chemical compound in a young planet-forming disc. Since methanol forms on the icy coatings of dust grains, this discovery provides a window into the region where comets are likely forming.