The origins of dark comets | Science & Technology

Up to 60% of near-Earth objects could be dark comets, mysterious asteroids that orbit the sun in our solar system that likely contain or previously contained ice and could have been one route for delivering water to Earth, according to a University of Michigan study.

The findings suggest that asteroids in the asteroid belt, a region of the solar system roughly between Jupiter and Mars that contains much of the system’s rocky asteroids, have subsurface ice, something that has been suspected since the 1980s, according to Aster Taylor, a U-M graduate student in astronomy and lead author of the study.

The study also shows a potential pathway for delivering ice into the near-Earth solar system, according to Taylor. How Earth got its water is a longstanding question.

“We don’t know if these dark comets delivered water to Earth. We can’t say that. But we can say that there is still debate over how exactly the Earth’s water got here,” Taylor said. “The work we’ve done has shown that this is another pathway to get ice from somewhere in the rest of the solar system to the Earth’s environment.”

The research further suggests that one large object may come from the Jupiter-family comets, comets whose orbits take them close to the planet Jupiter. The team’s results are published in the journal Icarus.

Dark comets are a bit of a mystery because they combine characteristics of both asteroids and comets. Asteroids are rocky bodies with no ice that orbit closer to the sun, typically within what’s called the ice line. This means they are close enough to the sun for any ice the asteroid may have been carrying to sublimate, or change from solid ice directly into gas.

Comets are icy bodies that show a fuzzy coma, a cloud that often surrounds a comet. Sublimating ice carries dust along with it, creating the cloud. Additionally, comets typically have slight accelerations propelled not by gravity, but by the sublimation of ice, called nongravitational accelerations.

The study examined…


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