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Cometary ORBYTS – Analysing Comet Tails from Earth

Students from Marymount Girls School, Holy Cross School and Orbyts fellow Qasim Afghan

Comets are Solar System bodies, made of rocks and ices, that originate from the outer edges of our Solar System. They are often considered as ‘fossils’: remnants from the formation of the Solar System. They contain valuable information about what conditions were like as the Solar System was forming, and what the ‘building blocks’ of the planets were. Visiting comets with spacecraft for analysis is possible but very difficult, as they appear unpredictably and only stay in the inner Solar System (i.e. near Earth) for a short time. However, we can analyse comets just by observing them from Earth.

Specifically for this project, we analysed comet dust tails. As comets travel around the Sun, gas and dust are blown off their surface to create their distinctive blue ion tail and white dust tail . This project focuses on analysing the dust tail: by analysing its structure, we can acquire a huge amount of detail about what comets are made of and learn more about the Solar System we live in.

We will be using image analysis techniques to spot structures within the dust tail. Some dust tails are split into two, distinct bright bands (known as syndynic bands), separated by a dark streak. This structure, known as syndynic bands, are what we be focused on. Each student was given their own image to analyse using Excel and Python. At the end of the project, we collected and compared everyone’s analysis. This work forms part of a large research study, involving several Orbyts groups, that surveys the structures in comets across a wide ranges of observations.

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Figure 1: An image from 18th July 2020 of Comet NEOWISE, the brightest comet in the Northern Hemisphere night sky in over 20 years. Image credit: Zixuan Lin.

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