Disintegrating comet keeps on doing its thing

Contributed by
May 8, 2006

Comet 73/P Schwassmann-Wachmann just keeps getting cooler. The above image is from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and shows the infrared light from the comet. Look at all dust and junk! I think -- I'm not sure, but I think -- the line you see connecting the chunks of the comet may just be dust that has spread out from the comet in a thin disk around it, and we are seeing it almost edge-on.

So that's cool. But it gets better. On Saturday I was playing around with some planetarium software to see where the comet would be in the next few days, and saw that it would pass really close to a perennial amateur astronomer favorite, the Ring Nebula. I posted quickly on the Bad Astronomy/Universe Today forum about it, and my old friend astronomer Bill Keel jumped right on it. Here is an image he took:

I mean, wow. That is so cool. The Ring Nebula is a dying star, something like the Sun but older, that is emitting a wind of gas from its surface (like a super-solar wind). That's what looks like a ring around the (faint) central star. For a somewhat more detailed image of the Ring, check out this Hubble image.

Anyway, the Ring is about 2000 light years from Earth, or about 12 quadrillion miles (12,000,000,000,000,000). Yikes. The comet is relatively nearby, at only about 10 million miles (and getting closer every day, until about May 15 or so when it starts to head off into the sunset). The comet looks streaked in the image because even during the short exposure it moved appreciably. It's so close to Earth that its motion (about 14 kilometers/second) is noticeable even in a few seconds at the eyepiece.

Bill is a professional astronomer, and he has a comet page with lots of nifty images (though 73/P hasn't made it there yet).

I may be posting more images as they come in.

Oh yeah-- I'll be talking about this comet and how it won't be killing everybody on Earth on the radio show Earth Changes, which generally deals with some, ah, fringe science topics. That's Tuesday May 9 (tonight!) at 9:00 Pacific time. That link will take you to streaming audio for the show, so you can listen to me live as I blather on.'

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