On Monday, Comet 73P/Schwassmann Wachmann 3 broke in two, and now it is breaking up into smaller pieces as it headstoward the sun. There have been recent internet predictionsthat a large fragment of this comet would strike the earthon May 25, but in a new UPDATE, NASA says this will NOThappen. However, it is possible that meteor showers couldresult if earth passes through the dust cloud surroundingthe comet.
The comet will make the closest approach to earth ofany comet in 20 years--it will be six million miles away, or25 times farther than the moon. Whether or not the dustcloud is now large enough to reach earth's orbit is unknown,and depends on whether or not the comet was originallybroken up by an impact or by thermal activity within theobject. An impact would mean that the dust cloud isexpanding faster, and could have reached earth orbit by now,although this is not considered likely.
Schwassmann Wachmann 3 was observed to be breaking up on its last trip through the inner solar system in 1995. Homeastronomers with even small telescopes should be able to seethe fragments on May 12, 13 and fourteen as they movethrough the constellations Cygnus and Pegasus. At present,fragment B is the brightness of a 9th magnitude star. TheHubble Space Telescope will be watching the comet on itsclose approach, and the Aricibo Radio Telescope will bepinging the fragments to determine their shape and size.
UPDATE: NASA has now announced that the comet fragments WILLdefinitely NOT hit the earth. Tariq Malik writes inspace.com that the Schwassman-Wachman 3 comet has circledthe sun every 5.4 years for over 75 years. Comets aremixtures of ice and space debris, and it is probably theheat of the sun that has caused the comet to break up intosmaller, icy pieces. But NASA scientists are confident thatthese fragments will remain over 8 million miles away fromthe earth during the comet's closest approach between May 12and 28.
Donald Yeomans, of NASA's Near-Earth Object Program, says,"We are very well acquainted with the trajectory of Comet73P Schwassmann-Wachmann 3." NASA's Hubble Space Telescopehas been keeping an eye on the comet's disintegration.
The comet was named after German astronomers ArnoldSchwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann, who first discoveredit in 1930. It wasn't seen again until 1979, and then wasmissed when it made a 1985 pass. Astronomers were able toobserve the comet's initial fragmentation in 1995. Armed theHubble and with their computers, NASA is confident they cancorrectly predict exactly where?and when?the comet fragmentswill impact the earth, and it won't happen this time around.
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