A massive comet traveling toward Earth has had two explosions in four months, according to the British Astronomy Association. Astronomers have observed the comet, 12P/Pons-Brooks, and its so-called “outbursts” – sudden, large releases of dust and gas – and some say it looks like the Millennium Falcon or a devil with horns.
Stargazers may be able to view it in 2024, when it makes its closest approach to the sun.
Richard Miles of the BAA told CBS News via email the comet is about 18 to 25 miles across and is “surrounded by a very much largely tenuous cloud of dust and gas.”
Several telescopes, including the Faulkes Telescope North on Maui, observed outbursts of the comet in July and again this month, according to BAA.
During the July outburst, as the comet spewed debris, it appeared brighter and seemed to take the shape of the Millennium Falcon spacecraft from “Star Wars,” according to Spaceweather.com, which reports on space news.
Other observers thought the pointed beams of light that came out of the rounded comet looked like devil horns, according to Live Science.
During many outbursts, which only happen in about 3–4% of comets, the particles ejected travel away from the nucleus, or center, of the comet and become diluted over time.
In the case of 12P/Pons-Brooks, the large nucleus of the comet casts a shadow around the could of gas and dust from the outburst, Miles said. As the dust sweeps past the body of the nucleus, it acts like air passing over the wing of an airplane, and “that creates the hollowed-out shape and horns so that the whole outburst coma looks a bit like the Millenium Falcon spaceship,” he said.
The comet has also been described as “Halley-like,” a term Miles said was coined a few decades ago “to describe comets in long elliptical orbits around the sun where it takes the comet between 20 and 200 years to go around once.”
“Halley has an orbital period of 76 years whereas Pons-Brooks takes 71 years. So both are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences,” he said.
The comet will pass closest to the sun around April 21, then will pass closest to Earth around June 2, he said. It may be visible when it is closer to the sun.
While NASA has called 12P/Pons-Brooks a “near-Earth comet” Miles said it is about 70 times further from Earth than our moon is. “So a collision is entirely out of the question,” he said.
Miles said there is also a question of whether or not comets like these could be viable for life to form because of the many elements that exist within it.
Many comets contain icy materials like water, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, Miles said. “But comets have a range of many more compounds that interact with the main components, and for these large, slow-rotators, they can form a crust when mixed with the dust component allowing various mixtures to melt beneath the crust,” he said. “Even water ice will melt in certain regions allowing aqueous solutions to form.”
Such comets that orbit around the sun raise the question: “Could they be a cradle for life to form, and then to be delivered to a planet like Earth along with its copious supply of water?” Miles said.