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New Class of Comets may be Source of Earth's Water

March 21, 2006

Astronomers from the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy (IfA) used Gemini North to make "crucial" observations of an object designated as Asteroid 118401. The Gemini imaging conclusively showed that the body is ejecting dust like a comet, according to an IfA press release based on a paper in the March 23rd issue of Science Express.

University of Hawaii graduate student Henry Hsieh and Professor David Jewitt, who led the research, suggest that asteroids and comets are much more closely related than previously thought. The fact that there may be a class of icy bodies like comets that live primarily in the main asteroid belt strongly supports the idea that these objects could be a major source of Earth's present-day water.

The Gemini observations were made using the GMOS imager on the night of November 26, 2005. The Gemini observations complement other observations made by the ESO 1.0-meter, UH 2.2-meter and the Spacewatch 0.9-meter telescopes. The full press release can be found on the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy website here.

Gemini North (GMOS) imaging of Asteroid 118401. This new "comet" is highlighted by the blue arrow. The tail of the "comet" is clearly seen as the v-shaped fan of emission extended from the object to the left. To make this observations the telescope tracked the comet as it moved across the sky which caused the stars in the field of view to 'smear out' into the long trails visible in the image.