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When This Comet Dies

Lunar & PlanetaryUPDATES CONTINUE:

#5 Number of fragments listed reaches 71 as of 06/01/06! Click to view ALL orbital elements

#4 The latest incredible new image of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope on APOD for May 3rd.

#3 Click on the link to APOD for April 26 for an outstanding image of fragment "B" of comet S-W 3 taken by the 8.2 meter Kueyen instrument of the Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory. Numerous pieces can be seen in that image indicating that this comet is still crumbling right before our eyes. S-W 3 passes nearest to the Earth on May 13, and nearest the Sun on June 6-7.....ALSO.... click "read more" below for Mike Holloway's latest image at the end of this article. This image is being carried on"Cometography" website.

#2 It seems that a possible break-up of the nucleus of fragment "B" may be underway over the last few days. In a negative image made by Dr. P. Clay Sherrod of Arkansas Sky Observatories, which was reprocessed by Mike Holloway, a suspicious brightening behind and separate from the nucleus can be seen. (click "read more")

#1 As of April 11, 2006, the number of individual fragments which have been located and associated with S-W 3 has reached 40 fragments according to a web article in Sky & Telescope !

Every so often, astronomy offers all of us who appreciate the beauty of the universe some little surprise. Both amateur and professional astronomers alike have recently been monitoring a well-known short-period comet that has begun to disintegrate and is soon doomed to fade out of existence. In the next 3 to 4 months, Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 will be front-and-center on the astronomical stage.

As it sings its swan song, every person on the planet will have a chance to see Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (I'll just shorten it to S-W 3) as a classic "iconic" comet... with the fuzzy head and a nearly stellar nucleus, and with a faint and likely short to medium length tail which will always be pointing away from the Sun. S-W 3 joins a few other recent comets that have broken up into fragments while the world watched in the last 150 years or so.

Fragment "C" of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 by Mike Holloway. This is a cropped image of a 3-frame mosaic of fragments C, B, and E, which may be seen by clicking on the link to Holloway Comet Observatory to the right.
The most spectacular of these recent fragmented comets was Shoemaker-Levy 9 which slammed its 22 tiny comets into Jupiter in 1994. (See image below) I can clearly remember setting up my telescope on July 16, 1994 and bringing Jupiter to a sharp focus at low power. There before my eyes was a huge smudge of brownish-black, larger than the Earth, where a fragment had crashed into the upper layers of the giant planet's outer atmosphere.

AOAS's resident comet specialist and astrophotographer, Mike Holloway, has been keeping a watch on S-W 3 for some time now. We can all follow his photographic journal of what transpires with this comet on his website by clicking on Holloway Comet Observatory. While on Mike's site, rummage through his extensive collection of comet images from the past few years, as well. Although he hasn't been doing this for a long period of time, Mike works very closely with Arkansas' top astronomer, Dr. P. Clay Sherrod, better known around the world as Dr. Clay. There are some remarkable images from Mike's rapidly growing portfolio.
Called by many a "String of Pearls", Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fragmented into at least 22 pieces that each crashed into Jupiter in the summer of 1994. Hubble Space Telescope image.
We at AOAS are all proud of Mike and his dedication to comet astrophotography and we're even more proud that he's a dedicated member of our club. As the years go by, I see him becoming someone known around the world as a well-known and noteworthy comet photographer, someone professionals turn to for the images that might make the difference in determining essential information about these wandering vagabonds of our Solar System.

Click read more for the rest of the story.

Comet Linear 2 breaks into pieces before being consumed by the Sun. Hubble Space Telescope image.

This is Comet Linear 2 and many fragments can be clearly seen within its coma here. This comet eventually disintegrated and was consumed by the Sun, but other comets go out less dramatically. But then less dramatically might be considered a relative term when you consider some examples.

In 1846, Biela's Comet was seen to fragment and then two separate comets travelled through the starry sky in tandem. Once it's orbit was calculated with great accuracy, it was realized that Biela's Comet had been seen as early as 1772, but those calculations also revealed that conditions were particularly unfavorable for viewing it on many of its previous returns.

By the time it had returned in 1852, it was now travelling as two comets in the same orbit, but separated by 1 1/2 million miles. No one ever saw this comet again, yet in 1872, Biela's Comet did make one final appearance, as a great meteor storm beginning over Europe on the night of November 27, 1872 and continuing for several hours until even the eastern coast of North America was also witness to the event. Numbers as high as 100 PER MINUTE were recorded by many observers, and it must have been a truly remarkable sight to see.

S-W 3 may have something similar in store for Earth in about 16 years. An article in Night Sky magazine for May/June 2006 tells of research done by astronomers Hartwig Luthen, Rainer Arlt, and Michael Jager who have concluded that Earth should intersect the dust and debris cloud from S-W 3 on May 31, 2022. Let's all keep our fingers crossed, and for sure, mark your calendars.
This ASO negative image is by Dr Clay Sherrod and further reprocessed by Mike Holloway. Notice the darkening of the material just behind the nucleus, suspected to be material released after a recent further break-up of this component of S-W 3.
Even though its only speculation that it might happen, its that chance that it might that causes me to say that I DO NOT want to miss this one!

For now, though, Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 has my attention and I hope yours as well. It will be best seen during periods with little to no moonlight during late April and May. A detailed map of exactly where to find it can be found in that article from Night Sky magazine as well. For anyone who comes to our observatory between now and May 6th, I'll give you a free copy of this magazine. All the copies we have left will be given away on May 6, 2006 at our ASTRONOMY DAY 2006 event to be held at UA Fort Smith and Carol Ann Cross Park. Watch for a complete article on this coming soon.
Mike Holloway's image from April 27th of fragments "B" and "G".

(portions of this article are paraphrased and information used based on an article by Joe Rao in Night Sky magazine, pp32-36, May 2006, from the publishers of Sky & Telescope)
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When This Comet Dies
Authored by: Anonymous onFriday, May 19 2006 @ 01:14 pm EDT
I've been busy lately, but I was able to observe comet SW3 earlier this week. I was only able to locate fragment B. To me, fragment B seems to be a peanut shape as if it's breaking apart.

I will try and observe this Saturday night, and sketch my observations if I can.

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