Another One Bites the Dust

Comet 57P
Comet 57P/du Toit-Neujmin-Delporte has broken apart into at least 20 distinct fragments stretching across one million kilometers. Some of the pieces are estimated to be only a few tens of meters across. The fragment discovered by the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program is labeled B.
Courtesy Yanga R. Fernandez.
It seems another comet is dissolving into nothingness, right in front of astronomers' eyes. On July 13th, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program (NEAT) reported finding a peculiar object with a faint coma. Calculations at the Minor Planet Center soon revealed that the small body had the same motion as the periodic comet 57P/du Toit-Neujmin-Delporte but was separated from its nucleus by some 0.2 degree.

Alerted by those observations, a team of astronomers from the University of Hawaii led by Yanga R. Fernández examined the comet with the university's 2.2-meter telescope atop Manua Kea. Their images revealed 18 additional fragments that ranged in brightness from magnitude 20 to 23.5. While the bulk of the comet's nucleus apparently remains intact, its castoffs have already spread across a half degree of sky, roughly 1,000,000 kilometers.

Evidence suggests that the breakup began six years ago when comet 57P last came its closest to the Sun. On its way out, the comet "flared," becoming five magnitudes brighter than expected. The debris field implies that sunlight induced thermal stresses in the nucleus and led to the fragmentation.

This is the third such breakup to be closely monitored. But unlike comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, whose fragments plunged into Jupiter in 1994, or comet LINEAR (C/1999 S4), which had pieces that exploded in light like fireworks before quickly fading to nothing, comet 57/P's pieces will disappear more slowly. The fragments' longevity will allow scientists to track their evolution and gain a better understanding of the structure and fragility of all comets.