Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2002 August 2
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Comet 57P Falls to Pieces
Credit: Y. Fernández, S. Sheppard, D. Jewitt (University of Hawai`i)

Explanation: Comet 57P has fallen to pieces, at least 19 of them. Orbiting the Sun every 6 years or so this faint comet - also christened Comet 57P/du Toit-Neujmin-Delporte for its three 1941 co-discoverers - is simply 57th on the list of comets known to be periodic, beginning with Comet 1P/Halley. In mid July, responding to reports of a new object possibly associated with Comet 57P, astronomers were able to construct this mosaic of deep sky images identifying a surprising 19 fragments (circled) strung out behind the cometary coma and nucleus itself (far left). The full mosaic spans about a million kilometres at the distance of the comet, while the individual pieces detected are probably a few tens to a few hundred metres across. Stress produced as sunlight warmed the icy, rocky nucleus likely contributed to the fragmentation. In fact, when last seen passing through the inner solar system in 1996, Comet 57P brightened unexpectedly, indicating a sudden increase in surface activity.

Tomorrow's picture: radio mystery ...

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