Imperial College London Centenary
 
About Imperial
About ImperialContacts/getting hereAlumniResearchCoursesAbout this site
Select your text size  for this site here: Small Text Normal Text Large Text Extra Large Text

Note: Some of the graphical elements of this site are only visible to browsers that support accepted web standards. The content of this site is, however, accessible to any browser or Internet device.

 

Ulysses spacecraft's surprise encounter with Comet Hyakutake's tail


Scientists at Imperial College and Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, have identified the longest comet tail ever recorded. The tail belongs to Comet Hyakutake and measures over 570 million kilometres in length - which is nearly four times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. If the ghostly comet tail could be seen with the naked eye from Earth it would stretch almost halfway across the sky.

The scientists, led by Geraint Jones of Imperial College, London, discovered the comet tail when analysing data from the magnetic field instrument on the spacecraft Ulysses - a joint European Space Agency/NASA mission - that flew through the comet tail.

Artist's impression of Ulysses encountering the comet's tail
Image courtesy of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Artist's impression by David A. Hardy
The view from the Ulysses spacecraft as Comet Hyakutake's ion tail rushes towards it, at a point 560 million kilometers from the Sun and 550 million kilometers from the Earth. Travelling at up to 750 kilometers per second, the tail has taken 8 days to journey from the comet's head to Ulysses, carried by the solar wind flowing from the Sun. The tail, composed of gases released from the comet's icy nucleus, can be seen stretching for over 570 million kilometres. The planets Mercury, Venus and Earth can be seen to the right of the Sun.

To see larger versions of the artist's impressions, view animations and discover the background to this surprise encounter with the comet, visit the IC Physics department web site at: www.sp.ph.ic.ac.uk/Ulysses/comet/

Find news and press information about the Imperial College/QMW team's exciting discovery at these web sites:

Artist's impression of Ulysses encountering the comet's tail
Image courtesy of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Artist's impression by David A. Hardy
Read the research paper in Nature (6 April) at www.nature.com

Read the BBC News Online report here:news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_702000/702575.stm

Press release from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC): www.pparc.ac.uk/News/1_News.htm

Press release from the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) at: www.ras.org.uk/press/press.htm

[up]