Exocomets: Now you see them, now you don’t

Dr. Barry Welsh gives a talk on ExoComets at the SETI Institute

Present technology does not enable us to view images of these kilometer-sized infalling bodies, but the evaporation of gaseous products liberated from exocomets that occurs close to a star can potentially cause small disruptions in the ambient circumstellar disk plasma. For circumstellar disks that are viewed “edge-on” this evaporating material may be directly observed through transient (night-to-night and hour-to-hour) gas absorption features seen at rapidly changing velocities. Using high resolution spectrographs mounted to large aperture ground-based telescopes, we have discovered 15 young stars that harbor swarms of exocomets. In this lecture we briefly describe the physical attributes of comets in our own solar system and the instrumental observing techniques to detect the presence of evaporating exocomets present around stars with ages in the 10 – 100 Myr range. We note that this work has particular relevance to the dramatic fluctuations in the flux recorded towards “Tabby’s star” by the NASA Kepler Mission, that may be explained through the piling up of swarms of exocomets in front of the central star.