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Webb telescope spots water in rare comet

Webb telescope spots water in rare comet

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Astronomers used the James Webb Space Telescope to observe a rare comet in our solar system, making a long-awaited scientific breakthrough and stumbling across another mystery at the same time.

For the first time, water was detected in a main belt comet, or a comet located in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The discovery came after 15 years of attempts by astronomers using different observation methods.

The space observatory detected water vapor around Comet Read, which suggests that water ice can be preserved in a warmer part of the solar system. A study detailing the findings was published Monday in the journal Nature.

Comets typically exist in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, icy regions beyond the orbit of Neptune that can preserve some of the frozen materials left over from the formation of the solar system. The comets venture on long, oval-shaped orbits around the sun that can take thousands of years and have streaming tails that develop as the frigid objects occasionally pass close to the sun. Their fuzzy appearance and tails of material differentiate comets from asteroids.

But a rare subclass of comets called main belt comets are objects in the asteroid belt with circular orbits around the sun that periodically exhibit cometlike behavior, such as shedding material that creates a fuzzy appearance and a trailing tail.

Rather than shedding icy material through sublimation, when a solid turns directly to a gas, the main belt comets only seemed to eject dust. Given their location in the warm inner solar system closer to the sun than typical comets, main belt comets weren't expected to retain much ice - until now. And the discovery could add more evidence to the theory of how water became a plentiful resource on Earth early in its history.

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