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 Molecule flash mob
19.01.2017 | Technische Universität Wien

nachricht Magnetic moment of a single antiproton determined with greatest precision ever
19.01.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

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: Traffic jam in empty space

New success for Konstanz physicists in studying the quantum vacuum

An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...

Im Focus: How gut bacteria can make us ill

HZI researchers decipher infection mechanisms of Yersinia and immune responses of the host

Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...

Im Focus: Interfacial Superconductivity: Magnetic and superconducting order revealed simultaneously

Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.

While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...

Im Focus: Studying fundamental particles in materials

Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales

Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...

Im Focus: Designing Architecture with Solar Building Envelopes

Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.

As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Sustainable Water use in Agriculture in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

19.01.2017 | Event News

12V, 48V, high-voltage – trends in E/E automotive architecture

10.01.2017 | Event News

2nd Conference on Non-Textual Information on 10 and 11 May 2017 in Hannover

09.01.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

New Study Will Help Find the Best Locations for Thermal Power Stations in Iceland

19.01.2017 | Earth Sciences

Not of Divided Mind

19.01.2017 | Life Sciences

Molecule flash mob

19.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>