We finally get to spot a burnt-out comet and what is it covered in? Talcum powder

We might just be witnessing a final state of these incredible space rocks

Not only did a telescope on Earth spot, for the first time in history, an extinct comet on a close fly-by of our home world but scientists now reckon the space rock is covered in a substance similar to talcum powder.

Night-sky watchers from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and the Koyama Astronomical Observatory discovered Comet P/2016 BA14 five years ago, and recorded it for 30 hours as it made its closest approach to Earth. They initially thought the rock was an asteroid, though the data showed it was an unusual comet.

Unlike most comets, P/2016 BA14 was not shrouded in a halo of dust and ice. In fact, it is coated in large phyllosilicate grains, a substance more commonly used on Earth for talcum powder.

“This result provides us a precious clue to study the evolution of comets,” said Takafumi Ootsubo, the lead author of a study into the body and an astronomer at NAOJ, on Tuesday. “We believe that further observations of the comet nuclei will enable us to learn more about the evolution of comets.”

When comets are warmed by sunlight, they are typically wrapped in an envelope of gases that give it a fuzzy appearance. The gases are produced when the ice and dust on its surface sublimate, and as these objects streak across the sky sometimes the particles are compressed into a tail.

Still from animation of Comet 67P with a glowing aurora. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

And now for something completely different: Ultraviolet aurora spotted around comet for first time


Comet P/2016 BA14, however, emits very little of these gases or particles because the material on its surface has mostly disappeared. Observations made using the Subaru Telescope reveals that underneath what remains of the ice and dust is a generous coating of something close to talcum powder.

“The normalized emissivity spectrum of the comet exhibits absorption-like features that are not reproduced by the anhydrous minerals typically found in cometary dust coma, such as olivine and pyroxene,” the study, published in the journal Icarus, reads.

“Instead, the spectral features suggest the presence of large grains of phyllosilicate minerals and organic materials. Thus, our observations indicate that an inactive small body covered with these processed materials is a possible end state of comets.”

It’s the first time scientists have found hydrous silicate materials in or on a comet. The team estimated that the 800-metre-wide specimen has been scorched to temperatures beyond 330°C, and was probably in an orbit that brought it closer to the Sun than its current path.

The observations were made on March 22, 2016 when the comet passed within 3.6 million kilometres of our home planet. The team wants to figure out if the comet accrued the powder on its body or if the phyllosilicate was there from the start. Detecting more near-dead comets could help confirm whether these objects do, indeed, transform into dead husks of talcum powder after one too many trips around the Sun. ®

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Stolen university credentials up for sale by Russian crooks, FBI warns
    Forget dark-web souks, thousands of these are already being traded on public bazaars

    Russian crooks are selling network credentials and virtual private network access for a "multitude" of US universities and colleges on criminal marketplaces, according to the FBI.

    According to a warning issued on Thursday, these stolen credentials sell for thousands of dollars on both dark web and public internet forums, and could lead to subsequent cyberattacks against individual employees or the schools themselves.

    "The exposure of usernames and passwords can lead to brute force credential stuffing computer network attacks, whereby attackers attempt logins across various internet sites or exploit them for subsequent cyber attacks as criminal actors take advantage of users recycling the same credentials across multiple accounts, internet sites, and services," the Feds' alert [PDF] said.

    Continue reading
  • Big Tech loves talking up privacy – while trying to kill privacy legislation
    Study claims Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft work to derail data rules

    Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft often support privacy in public statements, but behind the scenes they've been working through some common organizations to weaken or kill privacy legislation in US states.

    That's according to a report this week from news non-profit The Markup, which said the corporations hire lobbyists from the same few groups and law firms to defang or drown state privacy bills.

    The report examined 31 states when state legislatures were considering privacy legislation and identified 445 lobbyists and lobbying firms working on behalf of Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft, along with industry groups like TechNet and the State Privacy and Security Coalition.

    Continue reading
  • SEC probes Musk for not properly disclosing Twitter stake
    Meanwhile, social network's board rejects resignation of one its directors

    America's financial watchdog is investigating whether Elon Musk adequately disclosed his purchase of Twitter shares last month, just as his bid to take over the social media company hangs in the balance. 

    A letter [PDF] from the SEC addressed to the tech billionaire said he "[did] not appear" to have filed the proper form detailing his 9.2 percent stake in Twitter "required 10 days from the date of acquisition," and asked him to provide more information. Musk's shares made him one of Twitter's largest shareholders. The letter is dated April 4, and was shared this week by the regulator.

    Musk quickly moved to try and buy the whole company outright in a deal initially worth over $44 billion. Musk sold a chunk of his shares in Tesla worth $8.4 billion and bagged another $7.14 billion from investors to help finance the $21 billion he promised to put forward for the deal. The remaining $25.5 billion bill was secured via debt financing by Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Barclays, and others. But the takeover is not going smoothly.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022