Largest cometary outburst sent "mini comets" flying at 451 kms an hour

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Washington, September 17 (ANI): In high-resolution images of comet Holmes, which erupted in 2007, astronomers have detected multiple "mini comets" bursting out at 451 kilometers an hour, which is the largest known cometary outburst in history.

According to National Geographic News, the fragments were recently revealed in high-resolution images of comet Holmes, a relatively small body discovered in 1892 that mysteriously erupted in 2007.

Over several days, astronomers using the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on Mauna Kea watched the 2.2-mile-wide (3.5-kilometer-wide) cloud of dust surrounding the comet swell to become larger than the sun.

Later, closer looks at the high-resolution images revealed that the comet also sent fragments, each with their own dust clouds and icy tails, shooting away from the main body.

Altogether, the extra material caused the comet to brighten significantly-producing the largest known cometary outburst in history.

"Normally, you need a large telescope to see comet Holmes, but during the outburst, it was visible with the naked eye," said team member Rachel Stevenson of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Comet Holmes is a so-called Jupiter Family comet, one with an orbit that crosses so near Jupiter's that the comet is affected by the massive planet's gravity.

Most such comets are doomed to break apart or crash into a planet or the sun.

In October 2007, an amateur astronomer first reported that comet Holmes had unexpectedly brightened by a million times in less than 24 hours.

Upon hearing the news, Stevenson and her colleagues quickly trained the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on the erupting object.

Based on what they saw, the team thinks the outburst was probably triggered five months before it was spotted, when the comet's elliptical orbit brought it closest to the sun, or about 186,000,000 miles (300,000,000 kilometers) away.

"We think that the interior of the comet was heated, vaporizing ice and creating a build up of pressurized gas inside," Stevenson said.

By October, the pressure had become too great and the comet erupted, releasing its gas in one go.

Despite the drama, the comet survived the explosion, Stevenson added, and it's now making its way back toward Jupiter. Its next close approach to the sun will be in 2014. (ANI)

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