Top 5 comet breakups in History

When comets breakup it can be an emotional time for Astronomers, amateur and professional alike.  Though not like a breakup with a significant other, we get our hopes up that the next comet will be a comet of the century.  We do this because comets are very unpredictable, and any given close approach to Earth could be spectacular….or terrible.

Comet ISON is about to pass behind the sun on November 28th, and could potentially break into pieces from the sun’s incredible tidal forces.  In honour of a new potential breakup, here are the top 5 comet breakups in history:

#5 Comet Holmes

17P/Holmes was a periodic comet originally discovered by astronomer Edwin Holmes in 1892.  Normally a quiet and regular comet, it became famous in October 2007 when it exploded, increasing its brightness by a factor of a half million (from Mag 17 to Mag 2.8), the largest comet outburst ever recorded.  In addition, it temporarily became the largest object in the solar system, surpassing the SUN! Though it still had a tiny mass and eventually dissipated.

#4 Comet LINEAR

C/ 2012 X1 LINEAR is the newest addition to make the list.  Trailing ISON by only 3 months, set to make an appearance in February 2014, the comet underwent a 100-fold increase in brightness and exploded in a similar fashion to Comet Holmes in 2007, though not as spectacular.  This has caused a lot of speculation about what will happen to ISON, which underwent a similar outburst to LINEAR.  An outburst does not always mean disintegration though, since comets often have icy deposits burst forth when assaulted by solar radiation.  Was LINEAR a bad omen for an ISON breakup?

#3 Schwassman-Wachmann 3

73P/Schwassman-Wachmann, the third comet discovered by two German astronomers with names far too difficult to pronounce together every time I talk about this comet in conversation, started breaking up in 1995.  By May 2006 there were 8 known fragments, and the comet is now presumed to have broken into at least 66 distinct objects.   As the comet moved into the inner solar system from the frozen vastness of space, the heat from the sun caused its slow disintegration.  There’s a great little gif of this happening that shows pieces being blown away by the solar wind.  SW3 will eventually disappear forever, but for now its broken and flying out in space.

Comet Schwassman-Wachmann 3 breaking up

#2 Shoemaker-Levy 9

Formally D/1993 F2, it famously broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994.  Jupiter’s extreme gravity created strong tidal forces that pulled the comet into many small pieces, the largest of which was about 2km.  It actually turned out to be an Astronomer’s dream, as it allowed us to observe deeper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere and solidify the gas giant’s role as a shepherd of space debris, protecting the inner atmosphere from many harmful rocks.  The scars in Jupiter’s cloud layers stuck around for several months and gave us a constant reminder of the breakup we were actually happy about.

#1: Comet Kohoutek

1973’s Comet discovered by Lubos Kohoutek (C/1973 E1) was predicted by Astronomers to become the comet of the century, and the media hype was enormous.  Sadly, Kohoutek partially disintegrated and fizzled out, causing the media to ignore the comet hype in the future.  This media avoidance actually let to a great comet C/1975 V1 West being widely unreported only two years later.

Lubos Kohoutek looking heartbroken

Poor Lubos.  Hopefully ISON will hold together and be the comet of the century.  I don’t know if Astronomers can take another breakup of this magnitude…no pun intended.



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