[meteorite-list] Breaking Up Is Hard To Do, Even For A Comet
From: Ron Baalke <baalke_at_meteoritecentral.com>
Date: Thu Apr 22 09:46:25 2004
MEDIA RELATIONS OFFICE
JET PROPULSION LABORATORY
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
PASADENA, CALIF. 91109 TELEPHONE (818) 354-5011
Contact: Martha J. Heil (818) 354-0850
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE May 17, 2001
BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO, EVEN FOR A COMET
Scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.,
helped to piece together what happened when Comet LINEAR (C/1999 S4)
disintegrated in July 2000, and their results will appear today in a special
issue of Science featuring studies of the comet.
Scientists watched the comet break up when it was nearly 115 million
kilometers (72 million miles) from the Sun. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope
and the Very Large Telescope took pictures at different resolutions and
different times. From the pictures, scientists learned the details of how
the comet broke up. The team was led by Dr. Hal Weaver, an astronomer at the
Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The fragments have spread out, to
disappear forever into deep space. The mini-comets that the scientists saw
ranged from about some 50 to more than 100 meters (165 to more than 300
feet) across. Today, the pieces will be roughly 600 million kilometers (400
million miles) from Earth.
"One question we tried to answer was, 'Did everything happen at one
time, or did the pieces of the comet slowly fragment off?'" said Dr. Zdenek
Sekanina of JPL, the paper's second author. He identified some of the
fragments in the pictures from Hubble and the Very Large Telescope,
determined their sizes and relative motions and the times they separated.
"We found that the comet's breakup was gradual but episodic. Also, the
distances among the mini-comets grew as time went by, and we wanted to find
out how rapidly."
There are two forces working on the different distances between the
mini-comets, Sekanina said. One is that the fragments broke off at different
times. The other is that gases flowing from the broken chunks of dust and
ice were propelling them to different speeds depending on their size.
Sekanina predicted that the tail would become a narrow, bright band,
made from the sunlight-reflecting dust released as the comet crumbled. While
the new tail was relatively bright at first, the comet's original head
disappeared, confusing calculations of the orbit. The last pictures of the
tail were taken in the second half of August 2000, about four weeks after
the event. Then the comet's remains vanished forever.
Dr. Michael Keesey of JPL calculated the comet's orbit, its distance
from the Sun, its probable origin and its angle to Earth. It was a long
period comet, born in the Oort cloud, which is postulated to extend from
outside the orbit of the farthest planet, Pluto, to about 30 trillion
kilometers (20 trillion miles) from the Sun. It took comet LINEAR about
60,000 years to travel once around the Sun.
The comet, popularly called LINEAR for the site of its discovery, the
Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research, Lexington, Mass., was one of several
dozen comets discovered in this way.
Another comet discovered by LINEAR, C/2001 A2, recently broke up as
it was nearing the Sun. It was observed to undergo an outburst in late March
2001, which may have signalled the splitting. Breaking up may be a common
end for comets, Keesey said.
JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena
for NASA. A picture of the comet is available at
Received on Thu 17 May 2001 03:35:50 PM PDT