Chiron asteroid or comet Sun photo

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Chiron: asteroid or comet?

Technically known as "2060 Chiron", Chiron is a minor planet in the outer solar system having the characteristics of both a comet and an asteroid. Discovered October 18, 1977 by Charles Kowai, Chiron is peculiar because it has a comaóa cloud of water, carbon dioxide and other gases sublimed from its nucleus indicating it is a cometary bodyóyet as of 2013 it was estimated (Herschel Space Observatory) to be 145 miles in diameter, almost 100,000 times the size of a normal comet. This size is characteristic of a large asteroid, which it was first thought to be. Its unusually elliptical orbit from just inside Saturnís orbit to approximately that of Uranusí is also unstable over millions of years, indicating that, in astronomical terms, it hasnít been there very long. This is supported by the fact that Chironís coma is still active, yet the super-volatiles (its coma) sublimating from its surface would have completely vaporized in a few million years at its current orbitís position.

Dozens of bodies have since been discovered with similar orbits and properties. In recognition of their dual comet/asteroid nature they have been designated Centaurs, the mythological Greek race that was half man, half horse. They are hypothesized to be escaped Kuiper belt objects because gravitational perturbations from Jupiter and Saturn would occasionally force Kuiper belt objects into Neptune-crossing orbits that could evolve into orbits like the Centaurís. The similarity in size between Chiron and other Kuiper belt objects also makes it a likely source. Although asteroids are in this size range too, Chironís coma rules out an asteroidal origin. It is currently classified as both a comet and an asteroid and has been given the cometary designation 95P/Chiron. Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology lists Chiron as a possible dwarf planet. It was actually found on earlier photographs dating back as far as 1895, which helped to establish its orbit.

Chiron was the first object classified as a Centaur because of its highly eccentric orbit, with an aphelion outside of Uranus' orbit and a perihelion inside Saturn's orbit (see above picture). All Centaurs orbit between the outer planets. They have unstable orbits due to the gravitational perturbation of the outer planets, which, over millions of years, will move them to new orbits or out of the solar system entirely.

This Chiron: asteroid or comet? page and much of this 600-page website are excerpted from the personalized Fine Art Book You and the Universe.

Go to Chiron, the wounded Healer in mythology



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