comet dust clouds


A huge cloud of hydrogen surrounded Comet Hale-Bopp when it neared the Sun in the spring of 1997. Ultraviolet light revealed a cloud 100 million kilometers (60 million miles) wide and diminishing in intensity outwards (contour lines). It far exceeded the great comet's visible tail (inset photograph).

Although generated by a comet nucleus perhaps only 40 kilometers (24 miles) in diameter, the hydrogen cloud was 70 times wider than the Sun itself (yellow circle to scale). Comet Hale-Bopp created hydrogen clouds ten times wider than the cloud of Comet Hyakutake in 1996 and 5 times larger than that from Comet Halley, back in 1986.

Solar rays broke up water vapor released from the comet by the warmth of the Sun. The resulting hydrogen atoms shone by ultraviolet light invisible from the Earth's surface. Even a satellite's view of the Hale- Bopp cloud would have been spoiled by hydrogen around the Earth. Stationed 1.5 million kilometers (100 million miles) out in space, SOHO had a clear view.

This image was charted by the SWAN instrument on the SOHO spacecraft. SWAN is the brainchild of Jean-Loup Bertaux and colleagues at the Service d'A[e/]ronomie du CNRS (France) and the Finnish Meteorological Institute. Tuned to see hydrogen, SWAN scans the sky and studies the solar wind's effect on hydrogen atoms coming from interstellar space. Comets reveal themselves as local sources of hydrogen.

With SWAN's maps, Michael Combi of the University of Michigan studies gas outflow from comets. He also uses the Hubble Space Telescope, but that instrument cannot safely look at comets near the Sun. The unique SWAN observations of Comet Hale-Bopp imply that the outflow of water vapour peaked at almost 50 million tonnes a day.

Main image: SOHO (ESA & NASA) and SWAN Consortium
Inset photo of comet: Dennis di Cicco and Sky & Telescope