It's an event that any professional astronomer would consider to be a once in a lifetime discovery. But for one 18-year old British student, witnessing the fragmentation of a comet she was studying became the highlight of a summer work experience program using the multi-million pound (dollar) Faulkes Telescope Project (part of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network ).
But that was just the icing on the cake; Hannah Blyth of St Johns College, Cardiff, also assisted in the discovery of over 20 previously unknown asteroids, two of which she discovered herself.
After capturing images of comet 213P Van Ness, Blyth quickly realized this was no ordinary observation. With program coordinator Nick Howes and world-leading comet and asteroid hunters Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido, the team detected cometary fragmentation in her photographs.
Howes had previously made a similar discovery when imaging Comet C2007 C3 in March 2010, so he immediately knew the significance of this finding.
At the time, Howes was remote controlling the Faulkes North telescope based in Hawaii (the other Faulkes telescope, Faulkes South, is located in Australia) and noticed a mountain-sized chunk of the comet fall away after taking six exposures. C2007 C3 was therefore in the process of disintegrating as it began its outward leg of its orbit around the sun. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) hailed it a "major astronomical discovery."
Fragmentation in comets is rarely observed, but can occur when they are closest to the sun and develop spectacular tails of gas, dust and ice particles. The tail originates from the icy core (or nucleus), so when it heats up, vapor from sublimating ices are outgassed into space, dislodging dust and other material.
In extreme cases, the nucleus can fracture and break apart -- exactly what the Faulkes team believes happened to 213P Van Ness. However, it appears the fragmentation isn't a recent event.
"The Comet (213P Van Ness) we're still imaging, as we attained the discovery confirmation only today from the IAU," Howes told Discovery News on Thursday. "The fragment, which JPL [NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory] scientists believe may have broken off as long as 6 years ago, needs further study, as for a fragment to survive that long and not fully sublimate is interesting."
"It's amazing to be involved in something like this," Blyth said in the Faulkes Telescope Project press release. "I was busy carrying out observations for Nick and almost cut short the sequence of images of this particular comet as he had sent me another target to look at – I'm glad I didn't change my plans!"
In an email, Blyth told Discovery News about the realities of being an astronomer.
"The life of an astronomer can be frustrating," she said. "If the weather isn't against you, the telescope is on the blink and vice versa. Fortunately for me, most of my sessions went ahead."
"The life of an astronomer is also laced with the joys of not knowing what new discoveries tomorrow will bring. Each day there was something going on, sometimes just the usual image asteroid x, y and z, but on the odd occasion something mind-blowing and exciting comes of it."
"New asteroids. Fragmenting comets. Of course to make discoveries you have to carefully go through the data you gather. So the interpreting the data is all part of an exciting day in the life of an astronomer."
Although she's already accomplished so much in astronomy, Blyth has other ideas for her next big academic step. "Astronomy is certainly going to be in my future, though possibly more as a passionate hobby than anything else. A career in science is definitely on the table for me, most likely in the biochemistry area."
"Astronomy is different to all the other sciences. Astronomy, at its most basic, is you sitting out in your back yard at night and looking up. Nothing fancy. No dangerous or exotic chemicals. You and the sky. And wherever you go, on the Earth at least, Astronomy is only a sunset away."
So what's next for Comet 213P Van Ness?
"The fragment does appear to still be drifting away from the main nucleus," said Howes, "and we originally thought it would be similar to the Comet C2007 Q3 event which I caught last year, in that the fragment would sublimate away. However, the IAU report with the JPL analysis has put a spanner in the works on that one, so we'll be tracking it for sure over the coming months."
"Between that and the fragmentation of Comet Elenin recently which, due to it's altitude we could not image, goes to show that these enigmatic interlopers are really fascinating."
What's more, according to Howes, the project will still have Blyth to help out with the analysis of the comet break-up and to refine the orbits of the newly discovered asteroids.
"Hannah will continue to work with us during her upcoming final year in high school, more sporadically but still, as she is now very adept with the telescopes, and has a great understanding of the data reduction methods we've been using to find the asteroids, she'll be an invaluable asset."