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Crumbling comet makes for cosmic deja vu

graphic
Color-enhanced image of splitting Comet LINEAR. The red spot contains two nuclei while a third trails on the left


By Richard Stenger
CNN

(CNN) -- A comet making perhaps a debut run toward the sun has conducted itself much like a sibling ice chunk last year. It is splitting apart as it swoops into the sweaty interior of the solar system.

In July, Comet LINEAR disintegrated into more than a dozen pieces in spectacular fashion before the watchful eye of countless Earth telescopes.

Now a second comet designated LINEAR has joined in the act. Little more than a month ago it split in half and last week one of those pieces divided again, European Southern Observatory scientists said.

The three main nuclei, less than 62 million miles (100 million km) from Earth, can be seen with the unaided eye in the Southern Hemisphere, appearing as a faint object in the southern constellation of Lepus, the Hare.

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The comet became visible roughly six months ago when its dirty exterior first split open to reveal its fresh interior. Exposed to sunlight, the freed material hastened the evaporative process, released more matter and reflected more sunlight, making the comet appear much brighter, the ESO scientists said.

Designated C/2001 A2, the second LINEAR has a highly elongated orbit, suggesting it is making its first trip to the inner solar system from the Oort Cloud, a reservoir of primordial ice balls on the outskirts of the solar system.

It could contain pristine material that dates back to the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, making it of particular interest to astronomers.

The comet will make its nearest approach to the sun this week, coming to within 72 million miles (116 million km) on May 25, said ESO astronomers.

Last week, astronomers published a detailed post-mortem report in the journal Science about the first LINEAR, classified as C/1999 S4. The comets were first detected by the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) project.







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