Kuiper Belt object to become comet in approx. 2 million years

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

2003 EL61.

A Kuiper Belt object just outside our solar system is on its way to becoming a new comet, possibly a very bright-looking one.

The object, 2003 EL61, is currently in the shape of a potato, is roughly the size of Pluto, and rotates on its axis every 4 hours. The top layer of the object is covered in a thin layer of an ice like substance and has a rocky center. Simulations show that the object is in an unstable orbit.

According to California Institute of Technology Professor Mike Brown, the object may enter Neptune's gravity, causing 2003 EL61 to be shot into interstellar space, or the inner solar system to become a comet. In the latter case, the object, because of nearing the sun, will begin to melt and a tail would form behind it.

"If you came back in two million years, EL61 could well be a comet. When it becomes a comet, it will be the brightest we will ever see," said Brown.

Brown also says that nearly 4.5 billion years ago, the object was made of half rock and half ice. Sometime after the object's birth, an object slammed into it causing most of the ice inside it to be broken off. The pieces to be broken off then became satellites, which are believed to be made of very pure water-ice.

Pieces of the object may currently be inside our solar system, already forming to become comet material.

"It's a bit like the story of Mercury. Mercury got hit by a large object early in the Solar System. It left mostly a big iron core, with a little bit of rock on the outside. This is mostly a rock core with a little bit of ice on the outside," added Brown.

But don't expect to get a light show from this object in the near future. Brown estimates that the comet will form in about 2 million years, but will be visible from Earth.