Cancel your holiday plans: new research suggests there's a particular kind of comet we should be paying more attention to, because it's possible one -- or many -- could eventually collide with Earth.
While there are several studies about objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a team of scientists is drawing attention to "centaurs" -- comets that are essentially comprised of ice and dust. According to Discovery, centaurs are "typically 31-62 miles wide [and] have unstable, elliptical orbits that start way beyond Neptune, the most distant planet from the Sun." Per the outlet:
Their paths cross those of the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, whose gravity fields occasionally deflect a comet towards Earth -- once about every 40,000-100,000 years. As they draw closer to the Sun, the comets would gradually break up, which is what causes the trademark cometary debris tail -- "making impacts on our planet inevitable".
The research team, which recently released its findings in the Royal Astronomical Society journal, Astronomy and Geophysics, said that, "The disintegration of such giant comets would produce intermittent but prolonged periods of bombardment lasting up to 100,000 years."
And if that wasn't horrifying enough, "A centaur arrival carries the risk of injecting, into the atmosphere...a mass of dust and smoke comparable to that assumed in nuclear winter studies." NO BIG DEAL. SUPER CASUAL.
It's really unlikely that a centaur will collide with Earth in our lifetimes (thankfully), but the researchers hope their study will inspire further research into the comets.
“In the last three decades, we have invested a lot of effort in tracking and analyzing the risk of a collision between the Earth and an asteroid," Bill Napier of the University of Buckingham, a co-author of the report, wrote. "Our work suggests we need to look beyond our immediate neighborhood too, and look out beyond the orbit of Jupiter to find centaurs."