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Comets fade even as deep in space as Saturn's orbit, scientists find

Returning comets fade even when they don't approach the sun, a new study found.
Returning comets fade even when they don't approach the sun, a new study found. (Image credit: Christian Gloor/CC BY 2.0)

When comets first appear near Earth, their bright tails of ionized gas stun observers, but on every subsequent return, they become dimmer.

Comets are essentially balls of dirty ice. Astronomers therefore believed that these objects become dimmer on their repeated returns to Earth because they released too much ice and gas during their earlier visits to the inner solar system. The comets melted and shrank because of the sun's warmth, the thinking goes, so when they return there is less material left to release and therefore a fainter coma.

But a new study by scientists from the University of Oklahoma found that even comets that only skirt the inner solar system and remain beyond the orbit of Saturn fade over time. That makes no sense because, in those far reaches of the solar system, the sun's light is so weak that it shouldn't be able to melt a comet's ice. 

In a statement (opens in new tab) about the new research, the scientists suggest there must be something going on, deep in space, that changes the physical properties of those comets that leads to their fading. 

Related: Amazing photos of Comet Leonard in the night sky

The researchers came to this conclusion when they ran computer simulations of comets traveling through the outer solar system, near the giant massive planets Jupiter and Saturn. The models showed that the powerful gravity of these planets alters the comets' orbits.

The comets may have started their journey following so-called highly eccentric elliptical orbits, approaching from the farthest regions of the solar system far beyond the orbit of Neptune, then hurtling toward the sun before disappearing back into the outer reaches for centuries. But with every passage near Jupiter and Saturn, the comets' orbits become more circular and they don't retreat as far from the sun, the study found. 

"We should therefore expect that the outer solar system has many more comets on these shrunken orbits compared to those on larger orbits," said Nathan Kaib, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Oklahoma and lead author of the new research.

The only problem is that those results don't match what astronomers actually see.

"Instead, astronomers see the opposite," Kaib said. "Distant comets with shrunken orbits are almost entirely absent from astronomers' observations, and comets with larger orbits dominate our census of the outer solar system."

To explain this strange absence, the researchers posit that the comets must have faded and even though they are there, somewhere beyond the orbit of Saturn, they are no longer visible to our telescopes.  

"Fading among distant comets was discovered by combining the results of computer simulations of comet production with the current catalog of known distant comets," said Kaib. "These distant comets are faint and extremely difficult to detect, and comet-observing campaigns have taken great pains to build this catalog over the past 20 years. Without it, this current work would not have been possible."

A cat-looking view of Comet 67P from the Rosetta mission. (Image credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA)

But to understand what exactly is happening would require more powerful telescopes than scientists can use today. Once those are available, Kaib and his colleagues say, astronomers will probably find out that the outer solar system is full of faded comets.

Astronomers know of comets that orbit between Jupiter and Saturn and regularly burst into powerful eruptions in spite of the cold environment, so it is clear that "dirty snowballs" can lose their matter even far away from the sun. 

A study based on the research was published (opens in new tab) Wednesday (March 30) in the journal Science Advances.

If you're looking for a telescope of binoculars to look at comets, check out our guide for the best binoculars deals and the best telescope deals on right now. Our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography guides also have tips on how to pick the best imaging gear to snap photos.

Editor's Note: If you snap an amazing comet or night sky picture and would like to share it with Space.com readers, send your photos, comments, and your name and location to spacephotos@space.com.

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Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc (opens in new tab). in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.