Comet outburst caught again!

Comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann has gone into outburst again and Richard Miles (British Astronomical Association) was lucky enough to get time on FTN to observe this active object. Below, Richard reports on his observations. 

"Comet 29P/ Schwassmann-Wachmann orbits in a relatively cool region of the solar system morethan 6 AU from the sun and yet it is the most active periodic comet known. Normally comets become active as they approach a close perihelion where solar heating is important. For this comet the evidence suggests that carbon monoxide is the main driver of its outbursts. Amateur astronomers regularly monitor the comet looking for such outbursts. On January 20 Spanish amateur Faustino Garcia (J38) reported a small outburst of comet 29P. Four days earlier he had measured the comet at magnitude 16.6 but on the morning of the 20th it looked more like a star at magnitude 14.9, a surge in brightness of about a factor of 5 having taken place. The last29P_20110127_Miles_label.jpg time amateurs detected an outburst of 29P was in May 2010.

About one week after the latest outburst, it has been possible to take a deep image of the comet using the Faulkes Telescope North. By tracking the comet and adding together 21 CCD frames having a total integration time of 65 minutes, a high signal-to-noise image has been obtained enabling image analysis to look for features within the freshly-formed coma. Looking at the illustration here, it is clear that the expansion of the coma as been largely in a direction towards one hemisphere as can be seen in the grayscale log-stretched image. Rotational gradient processing using IRIS software has revealed delicate structures within the coma as illustrated in the false-color image alongside.

The seeing for the FTN on Haleakala was good (1.2 arcsec fwhm) and so it has also been possible to study the region close to the comet nucleus. The features shown in the inset show that the nucleus is still active having expelled more material within the last day or so. Early last year comet 29P underwent a much more energetic outburst. The comet is now well placed for observation and amateurs will be carefully monitoring the object in anticipation of a more marked outburst over the coming weeks."

For the full size verion of the image here, please click on the image.