Passing comet flares as it crumbles

A heat-seeking space telescope has taken spectacular photos of a comet breaking up as it races by the Earth.
The celestial visitor has disintegrated into a stream of debris millions of miles long as it begins its close encounter.
More than 60 major chunks of comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 are accompanied by a trail of millions of smaller particles in a picture, above right, from Nasa’s Spitzer telescope in orbit.
Nasa say there is no danger to Earth. Although the comet – dubbed SW3 – will be one of the closest to pass us, it will not come nearer than 7.3 million miles.
Explosions caused as sunlight heats up the comet, releasing water and dust, have led to fragments flaring in brightness.
Amateur astronomers in the UK and America report that the biggest are easily visible with binoculars – and one even with the naked eye – in clear dark skies.
Jonathan Shanklin, of the UK’s Society for Popular Astronomy, said: “One fragment has undergone a substantial outburst in the last couple of days.
“I observed it from near the centre of Cambridge and it was very easy to see despite city light pollution, mist and bright moonlight.”
Spitzer’s eyes show SW3’s dusty trail especially well because they are sensitive to the infrared part of the spectrum.
The Hubble space telescope has also taken photos of the cosmic wanderer as it goes through its death throes.
Comet SW3 swings in round the sun every 5.4 years and the first signs of its disintegration were observed in 1995 when it was much further from the Earth.
The first fragments of the comet come closest to us today, May 12, before swinging by the sun on June 6.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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