Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

The Comet With A Broken Heart

Date:
April 26, 2006
Source:
European Southern Observatory
Summary:
On the night of April 23 to 24, ESO's Very Large Telescope observed fragment B of the comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 that had split a few days earlier. To their great surprise, the ESO astronomers discovered that the piece just ejected by fragment B was splitting again! Five other mini-comets are also visible on the image. The comet seems thus doomed to disintegrate but the question remains in how much time.

Image of Fragment B and associated mini-comets. This is a digitally-enhanced zoom-in version of PR Photo 15b/06 to show in a better way some of the smaller fragments. An arrow indicates the fragments that could be seen, including the main one - on top, the two just below that have just split and five others, much dimmer.
Credit: Image courtesy of European Southern Observatory

On the night of April 23 to 24, ESO's Very Large Telescope observed fragment B of the comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 that had split a few days earlier. To their great surprise, the ESO astronomers discovered that the piece just ejected by fragment B was splitting again! Five other mini-comets are also visible on the image. The comet seems thus doomed to disintegrate but the question remains in how much time.

Comet P73/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (SW 3) is a body with a very tormented past. This comet revolves around the Sun in about 5.4 years, in a very elongated orbit that brings it from inwards of the Earth's orbit to the neighbourhood of giant planet Jupiter. In 1995, when it was coming 'close' to the Earth, it underwent a dramatic and completely unexpected, thousand-fold brightening. Observations in 1996, with ESO's New Technology Telescope and 3.6-m telescope, at La Silla, showed that this was due to the fact that the comet had split into three distinct pieces. Later, in December 1996, two more fragments were discovered. At the last comeback, in 2001, of these five fragments only three were still seen, the fragments C (the largest one), B and E. No new fragmentations happened during this approach, apparently.

Things were different this time, when the comet moved again towards its closest approach to the Sun - and to the Earth. Early in March, seven fragments were observed, the brightest (fragment C) being of magnitude 12, i.e. 250 fainter than what the unaided can see, while fragment B was 10 times fainter still. In the course of March, 6 new fragments were seen.

Early in April, fragment B went into outburst, brightening by a factor 10 and on 7 April, six new fragments were discovered, confirming the high degree of fragmentation of the comet. On 12 April, fragment B was as bright as the main fragment C, with a magnitude around 9 (16 times fainter than what a keen observer can see with unaided eyes). Fragment B seems to have fragmented again, bringing the total of fragments close to 40, some being most probably very small, boulder-sized objects with irregular and short-lived activity.

The new observations reveal that this new small fragment has split again! The image clearly reveals that below the main B fragment, there is a small fragment that is divided into two and a careful analysis reveals five more tiny fragments almost aligned. Thus, this image alone shows at least 7 fragments. The comet has thus produced a whole set of mini-comets!

Will the process continue? Will more and more fragments form and will the comet finally disintegrate? How bright will the fragments be when the comet will be the closest to the Earth, on 11 to 14 May, and how many new fragments will have appeared before the comet reaches its closest approach to the Sun, around 7 June?

Fragment C of the comet should be the closest to Earth on 11 May, when it will be about 12 million km away, while fragment B will come as 'close' as 10 million km from Earth on 14 May. Although this is the closest a comet ever approached Earth in more than twenty years - even Comet Hyakutake's smallest distance was 15 million km - this is still 26 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon and therefore does not pose any threat to our planet.

If nothing else happens, at the time of closest approach, fragment B will be just visible with unaided eye by experienced observers. It should be an easy target however to observe with binoculars. If we are lucky, however, fragment B presents another outburst, becoming a magnificent sight in the night sky. On the other hand, it could just as well fade away into oblivion. But then, the main fragment C should still be visible, even possibly with the unaided eye.

ESO telescopes will observe the comet in the greatest detail at the end of May, when it is best observed from Chile and is brighter. These observations will obtain invaluable information, especially as the fragmentation process is revealing all the pristine material buried below the crust of the comet. As such, these observations will prove an ideal complement to the most comprehensive observation campaign made with ESO telescopes of Comet Tempel 1 when it was being bombarded by the Deep Impact spacecraft, on 4 July 2005.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by European Southern Observatory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

European Southern Observatory. "The Comet With A Broken Heart." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 April 2006. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060426075257.htm>.
European Southern Observatory. (2006, April 26). The Comet With A Broken Heart. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060426075257.htm
European Southern Observatory. "The Comet With A Broken Heart." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060426075257.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Space & Time News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Raw: ISS Cargo Ship Launches in Kazakhstan

Raw: ISS Cargo Ship Launches in Kazakhstan

AP (July 23, 2014) The Progress 56 cargo ship launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan Wednesday. NASA says it will deliver cargo and crew supplies to the International Space Station. (July 23) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks from Space Station

Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks from Space Station

AP (July 22, 2014) A Russian Soyuz cargo-carrying spacecraft undocked from the International Space Station on Monday. The craft is due to undergo about ten days of engineering tests before it burns up in the Earth's atmosphere. (July 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong

NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong

AP (July 21, 2014) NASA honored one of its most famous astronauts Monday by renaming a historic building at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It now bears the name of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. (July 21) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Neil Armstrong's Post-Apollo 11 Life

Neil Armstrong's Post-Apollo 11 Life

Newsy (July 19, 2014) Neil Armstrong gained international fame after becoming the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. But what was his life like after the historic trip? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

    Health News

      Environment News

        Technology News



          Save/Print:
          Share:

          Free Subscriptions


          Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

          Get Social & Mobile


          Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

          Have Feedback?


          Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
          Mobile: iPhone Android Web
          Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
          Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
          Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins