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Astronomers have revealed the secret of the comet tail of the asteroid Phaethon

The tail of asteroid 3200 Phaethon is made up of sodium gas, not dust. This was reported by the Goddard Space Flight Center.

The near-Earth asteroid Phaeton belongs to the Apollo group and is not large in size – its diameter is only slightly more than 5 kilometers. At the same time, it has extremely unusual, comet-like properties. It becomes brighter and forms a tail when near the Sun and is the source of the annual Geminid meteor shower, although comets are responsible for most meteor showers. For a long time, it was believed that the tail of this asteroid was composed of dust, and not of gas, like comets. A new study led by Kicheng Zhang has shown that this is not the case. He used the SOHO space telescope, whose filters allow you to see both gas and dust. With it, astronomers observed the asteroid during perihelion in 2022, and also examined archival data since 1997.

It turned out that this tail consists of gaseous sodium, and not dust. In addition, the shape of the tail and the way it brightened as Phaeton passed the Sun was exactly what scientists would expect if it was made of sodium rather than dust.

In this regard, astronomers propose to find out if many known comets (which should be made of ice) are rocky asteroids.

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