Scientists discover burnt-out comet covered in talcum powder

This is one comet that won't be getting any rashes.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
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Astronomers observed the comet in thermal infrared wavelengths, the same technology used for noncontact thermometers.

Kyoto Sangyo University

Comets have lifespans, too. As they get close to the sun, they heat up and lose material, sometimes forming impressive tails, as you might remember from when Neowise paid us a visit in 2020.

Comet P/2016 BA14 (Panstarrs) doesn't have a catchy name, but it is giving astronomers a glimpse at the dying days of what NASA refers to as "cosmic snowballs of frozen gases, rock and dust that orbit the sun." When astronomers first spotted the comet in 2016, they thought it was an asteroid, but later found it was a comet in a weakened state.

"It is believed that after many trips through the inner solar system, this comet has burnt off almost all of its ice and is now nearing the end of its cometary life," the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii said in a statement on Monday.

A team of scientists from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) and Koyama Astronomical Observatory of Kyoto Sangyo University used the Subaru Telescope to gather thermal infrared data on the comet. This is the same technology used for noncontact thermometers.  

Observations of the curious comet revealed its nucleus to be 2,600 feet (800 meters) in diameter and its surface covered with phyllosilicate, which we know on Earth as talcum powder. "This is the first time hydrous silicate minerals such as talc have been found in a comet," said the Subaru Telescope team.

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ESA's Rosetta mission gave us incredible up-close views of a comet that was still laden with ice and dust.


The team published a study on the comet in the journal Icarus. "This result provides us a precious clue to study the evolution of comets," said lead author Takafumi Ootsubo of the NAOJ. 

The researchers suspect the comet once orbited closer to the sun, which would have heated it up considerably. The discovery leads to a key question: Was the the talcum powder always there or did it form as the comet was cooked by the sun? The researchers hope more observations might produce some answers.

While this comet appears to have reached its end game, you can see what a more intact comet looks like thanks to images of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, the focus of the Rosetta mission, which revealed an active, dusty surface.

Rosetta captures comet's craggy beauty (pictures)

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