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Interception of comet Hyakutake's ion tail at a distance of 500 million kilometres

Interception of comet Hyakutake's ion tail at a distance of 500 million kilometres

Publication date: 07 April 2000

Authors: Gloeckler, G.

Journal: Nature
Volume: 404
Page: pp. 576-578
Year: 2000

Copyright: 2000 Macmillan Magazines Ltd

Remote sensing observations and the direct sampling of material from a few comets have established the characteristic composition of cometary gas. This gas is ionized by solar ultraviolet radiation and the solar wind to form 'pick-up' ions, ions in a low ionization state that retain the same compositional signatures as the original gas.

The pick-up ions are carried outward by the solar wind, and they could in principle be detected far from the coma. (Sampling of pick-up ions has also been used to study interplanetary dust, Venus' tail and the interstellar medium.)

Here we report the serendipitous detection of cometary pick-up ions, most probably associated with the tail of comet Hyakutake, at a distance of 3.4 au from the nucleus. Previous observations have provided a wealth of physical and chemical information about a small sample of comets, but this detection suggests that remote sampling of comet compositions, and the discovery of otherwise invisible comets, may be possible.

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