Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

The comet with a broken heart

26.04.2006


VLT takes images of disintegrating comet P73/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3


Broken Fragments of Comet P73 / Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (FORS/VLT). ESO Press Photo 15b/06 (25 April 2006)
Copyright: ESO



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 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 produced a whole set of mini-comets!

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

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.

Henri Boffin | alfa
Further information:
http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2006/pr-15-06.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Space radiation won't stop NASA's human exploration
18.10.2017 | NASA/Johnson Space Center

nachricht Study shows how water could have flowed on 'cold and icy' ancient Mars
18.10.2017 | Brown University

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Neutron star merger directly observed for the first time

University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event

On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...

Im Focus: Breaking: the first light from two neutron stars merging

Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.

Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....

Im Focus: Smart sensors for efficient processes

Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).

When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...

Im Focus: Cold molecules on collision course

Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.

How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...

Im Focus: Shrinking the proton again!

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.

It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ASEAN Member States discuss the future role of renewable energy

17.10.2017 | Event News

World Health Summit 2017: International experts set the course for the future of Global Health

10.10.2017 | Event News

Climate Engineering Conference 2017 Opens in Berlin

10.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Osaka university researchers make the slipperiest surfaces adhesive

18.10.2017 | Materials Sciences

Space radiation won't stop NASA's human exploration

18.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Los Alamos researchers and supercomputers help interpret the latest LIGO findings

18.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>