NASA’s Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory tallied the water lost from an interstellar comet as it approached and rounded the Sun. The object, 2I/Borisov, traveled through the solar system in late 2019.
Comets are frozen clumps of gases mixed with dust, often called “dirty snowballs.” As a one approaches the Sun, frozen material on its surface warms and converts to gas.
When sunlight breaks apart water molecules, one of the fragments is hydroxyl, a molecule composed of one oxygen and one hydrogen atom. Swift detects the fingerprint of ultraviolet light emitted by hydroxyl using its Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT). Between September and February, Swift made six observations of Borisov with Swift. It saw a 50% increase in the amount of hydroxyl — and therefore water — Borisov produced between Nov. 1 and Dec. 1, which was just seven days from the comet’s closest brush with the Sun.
At peak activity, Borisov shed eight gallons (30 liters) of water per second, enough to fill a bathtub in about 10 seconds. During its trip through the solar system, the comet lost nearly 61 million gallons (230 million liters) of water — enough to fill over 92 Olympic-size swimming ...