Hello, friends! Welcome to Sciency Words, a special series here on Planet Pailly where we talk about the definitions and etymologies of scientific terms. In today’s Sciency Words post, we’re talking about the word:
Did you see the comet? Pretty much everyone I know has been asking me that question lately. Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) had a wild ride these last few weeks. First, she started glowing a lot brighter and a lot greener than expected, leading to some people calling her “the green comet.” Then, due to some intense solar activity, a gap formed in one of the green comet’s two tails. Shortly thereafter, almost as if the comet were trying to compensate for the damage to one tail, an apparent third tail became visible to observers here on Earth. This apparent third tail is what astronomers call an antitail.
Definition of antitail: Comets typically have two tails: a dust tail and an ion tail. These tails are supposed to point away from the Sun. They’re caused by the solar wind sweeping gas, dust, and other lightweight material away from the comet and off into space. An antitail is an apparent third tail pointing toward the Sun. At least antitails look like they’re pointing toward the Sun, but this is actually an optical illusion.
Etymology of antitail: The prefix “anti-” can mean several things. In this context, it means “opposite,” because antitails point (or look like they point) in a direction opposite to the direction cometary tails are supposed to point. Based on my research, I believe this term was first introduced in the late 1950’s, following the appearance of comet Arend-Roland.
Okay, I’m going out on a bit of a limb claiming that the term was introduced in the 1950’s. I cannot find any sources explicitly stating that, but almost every source I looked at seems to agree that Comet Arend-Roland had the most famous and noteworthy antitail in the history of antitails. In 1957, Arend-Roland developed a large and protruding “sunward spike.” In photos (like this one or this one), the comet reminds me a little of a narwhal.
Arend-Roland cannot possibly be the first comet ever observed to have an antitail, but it does seem to be the most spectacular and most widely studied antitail in recorded history. Crucially, I was unable to find any sources mentioning cometary antitails prior to 1957. Ergo, I think I’m right that the term was first introduced around that time, in reference to that particular comet. But I could be wrong, and if anyone knows more about this topic than I do, please do share in the comments below.
Regardless of how much of a first Arend-Roland’s antitail really was to the scientific community at the time, it was not much of a mystery. Within a matter of months, scientists were able to offer explanations, like this explanation published in Nature:
No extraordinary physical theory appears necessary to account for the growth of the sunward tail […] The sunward tail must almost certainly have resulted from the concentration of cometary debris over an area in the orbital plane. Seen at moderate angels to the plane, the material possessed too low a surface brightness to be easily observed, but seen edge-on it presented a concentrated line of considerable intensity.
So several things have to happen in order for us Earth-based observers to see an antitail. First, a comet needs to shed some debris that’s too big and heavy to be swept off by the solar wind. This extra debris will accumulate along the comet’s orbital path, rather than billowing off in a direction pointing away from the Sun. Second, Earth has to be in just the right place at just the right time to see this debris field “edge-on.” Otherwise, the light reflecting off the debris will be too diffuse for us to see. And third, this has to happen at a time when the comet’s tails don’t overlap with the debris field (i.e., the debris and the tails have to be pointing in opposite directions, as seen from Earth). Otherwise, the glow of the tails will obscure the light reflecting off the debris.
Last week, I was lucky enough to see the comet, but I didn’t see her bright green color (she was a hazy grey in my telescope), and I certainly didn’t get a chance to see the antitail. I’m pretty sure I was a few days too late for that, and besides, there’s too much light pollution where I live to see faint details like that.
Still, I consider it a great joy and privilege that I got to see as much of the comet as I did. And for all the cool sciency stuff I couldn’t see for myself, I can always turn to my research if I want to learn more.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
Here’s the 1957 report from Nature that I quoted above, explaining what “must almost certainly” have caused Arend-Roland’s “sunward tail.”
And here’s a more recent article about Arend-Roland, reviewing the comet’s discovery, observation history, and the appearance of his antitail.
Lastly, here’s an article from Live Science about the recent “green comet” and her antitail.