Washington: NASA`s Spitzer Space Telescope has observed what most likely are strong carbon dioxide emissions from Comet ISON ahead of its anticipated pass through the inner solar system later this year.
Images captured on June 13 with Spitzer`s Infrared Array Camera indicate carbon dioxide is slowly and steadily "fizzing" away from the so-called "soda-pop comet," along with dust, in a tail about 186,400 miles long.
"We estimate ISON is emitting about 2.2 million pounds of what is most likely carbon dioxide gas and about 120 million pounds of dust every day," Carey Lisse, leader of NASA`s Comet ISON Observation Campaign and a senior research scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md, said.
"Previous observations made by NASA`s Hubble Space Telescope and the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission and Deep Impact spacecraft gave us only upper limits for any gas emission from ISON. Thanks to Spitzer, we now know for sure the comet`s distant activity has been powered by gas," she said.
Comet ISON was about 312 million miles from the Sun, 3.35 times farther than Earth, when the observations were made.
"These fabulous observations of ISON are unique and set the stage for more observations and discoveries to follow as part of a comprehensive NASA campaign to observe the comet," James L. Green, NASA`s director of planetary science in Washington, said.
"ISON is very exciting. We believe that data collected from this comet can help explain how and when the solar system first formed," he said.
Comet ISON (officially known as C/2012 S1) is less than 3 miles in diameter, about the size of a small mountain, and weighs between 7 billion and 7 trillion pounds.
Because the comet is still very far away, its true size and density have not been determined accurately.
Like all comets, ISON is a dirty snowball made up of dust and frozen gases such as water, ammonia, methane and carbon dioxide.
These are some of the fundamental building blocks which, scientists believe, led to the formation of the planets 4.5 billion years ago.