Deep in the solar system, between Jupiter and Neptune, lurk thousands of small chunks of ice and rock. Occasionally, one of them will bump into Jupiter’s orbit, get caught and flung into the inner solar system—towards the sun, and us.
This is thought to be the source of many of the comets that eventually pass Earth. A new study lays out the dynamics of this little-understood system. Among the findings: it would be doable for a spacecraft to fly to Jupiter, wait in Jupiter’s orbit until one of these objects gets caught in the planet’s gravity well, and hitch a ride with the object to watch it become a comet in real time.
“This would be an amazing opportunity to see a pristine comet ‘turn on’ for the first time,” said Darryl Seligman, a postdoctoral researcher with the University of Chicago and corresponding author of the paper, which is accepted to The Planetary Science Journal. “It would yield a treasure trove of information about how comets move and why, how the solar system formed, and even how Earth-like planets form.”
Thanks in part to discoveries of several major asteroid belts, scientists over the last 50 years have revamped their theories of how our solar system came to be. Rather than big planets quietly evolving in place, they now envision a system that was much more dynamic and unstable—chunks of ice and rock scattered and smashing into each other, re-forming and moving around within the solar system.
Many of these objects eventually coalesced into the eight major planets, but others remain loose and scattered in several regions of space. “These minor bodies show you the solar system is actually this very dynamic and almost living place that’s constantly in a state of flux,” said Seligman.
Scientists are very familiar with the asteroid belt near Mars, as well as the larger one out past Neptune called the Kuiper belt. But between Jupiter and Neptune, there lurks another, lesser-known population of objects called the centaurs (named after the mythical hybrid creatures due to their classification halfway between asteroids and comets).
Occasionally, these centaurs will get sucked into the inner solar system and become comets. “These objects are very old, containing ice from the early days of the solar system that has never been melted,” said Seligman. “When an object gets closer to the sun, the ice sublimates and produces these beautiful long tails.