Amateur astronomers spot breakup of comet as it passes Earth

"It certainly feels like it's only a matter of time before comet 73P is destroyed, disintegrating into a trail of cosmic dust," predicted astronomer Paul Cox.
By Brooks Hays   |   Feb. 14, 2017 at 12:49 PM

Feb. 14 (UPI) -- On Sunday night, Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann made its closest approach to Earth as it zipped toward the sun. As it did so, it split into at least two large pieces.

Several amateur astronomers and Slooh members watched the breakup of Comet 73P. Slooh is a global network of telescopes that can be accessed and controlled online by a community of amateur astronomers.

"They immediately pointed Slooh's telescopes to capture the event," Paul Cox, chief astronomical officer at Slooh, said in a statement. "Members will continue to monitor the comet live over the coming weeks -- assuming the comet survives that long."

The latest breakup continues Comet 73P's history of fragmentation. Astronomers witnessed the comet split apart in 1995 and then again in 2006. If its disintegration continues, it could soon become nothing but unrecognizable space dust.

Comet 73P is a Jupiter-family comet, and its orbital path is dictated by the gas giant and the sun. The two orbs are also the greatest threat to its continued existence. It's possible the comet's forthcoming trip around the sun -- the intimate approach known as perihelion -- will render the comet nothing more than rubble.

Even if it survives perihelion, it could suffer the same deadly fate when it passes by Jupiter. It will come within 31 million miles of the planet in 2025.

"It certainly feels like it's only a matter of time before comet 73P is destroyed, disintegrating into a trail of cosmic dust," Cox concluded.

Last weekend was a busy one for astronomers. Astronomers witnessed two comet flybys -- Comet 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova made an appearance on Friday night -- as well as a full moon and lunar eclipse.

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