Celestial Tour: Death of a Comet

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Comets can be spectacular when near the Sun. But far from the Sun a comet is a tiny frozen chunk of ice and dust.

Produced by: Space Telescope Science Institute, Office of Public Outreach

  • Ground-based images of Comet LINEAR copyright Mike Fleenor
  • Bayeux Tapestry image copyright Art Resource, Musee de la Tapisserie, Bayeux, France
  • Halley's Comet ion tail image: NASA/JPL
  • Giotto flyby movie courtesy European Space Agency
  • Color ground-based image of Comet Ikeya-Seki in 1966: Roger Lynds/AURA/NOAO/NSF 
  • Color ground-based image of Comet Giocobini-Zinner in 1998: N.A. Sharp AURA//NOAO/NSF
  • Color ground-based images of Comet Hyakutake and Comet Hale-Bopp copyright Kevin Hartnett
  • Hubble Space Telescope Image of Comet Hyakutake: H. Weaver (ARC), HST Comet Hyakutake Observing Team, and NASA
  • Hubble Space Telescope image of Comet Hale-Bopp: H. Weaver (ARC), P.D. Feldman (Johns Hopkins Univrsity), and NASA
  • Hubble Space Telescope images of Comet LINEAR: NASA, H. Weaver, and P. Feldman (Johns Hopkins University), M. A'Hearn (University of  Maryland), C. Arpigny (Liege University), M. Combi (University of Michigan), M. Festou (Observatoire Midi-Pyrenees), and G.-P. Tozzi (Arcetri Observatory)
  • Ground-based image of Comet LINEAR post-perihelion: University of Hawaii
  • Music courtesy of Jonn Serrie
  • Written and designed by John Stoke

 Text, death of a comet. 


 Comet Linear drifts through the sky, nearing the sun. Small images of a bright white object with a diffused tail streaking across the night sky. Text, The Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program discovered Linear in September 1999. Astronomers expected the comet to be visible without a telescope by late July 2000. 

A colored image of a comet crossing the night sky filled with stars towards a glowing red horizon. The comet is one bright point with a long smoky tail. Text, Comet Ikeya Seki, 1966. Comets can be spectacular with near the sun. But far from the sun, a comet is a tiny frozen chunk of ice and dust. An image of a bright white comet glowing in a field of stars. Text, Comet Giacobini Zinner, 1988. Approaching the sun, a comet heats, its ices begin to vaporize, forming a cloud called the coma. 

A photo of Comet Hyakutake, a blue white glowing point with a long diffusing tail behind it. Text, The solar wind drives gas and dust away from the coma to form the tail. Photo of comet hale-bopp, a blaze of white with a long yellowish tail and streak of blue on top of it streaming in a different direction. Text, Sometimes comets show two tails, a faint blue gas tail and a yellowish dust tail that reflects sunlight. 

Medieval embroidery depicting people standing in a stone building and pointing up at the sky where a comet passes, a ball surrounded by flames. Text, We have watched comets for centuries. This one, seen in 1066 became known as comet Halley seen here in 1986. A black and white photo of a comet. Text, Until 1986 we had never seen a comet's nucleus close up. Then Europe's Giotto probe flew past the potato shaped core of Comet Haley. A video of a flashing yellowish light with a lumpy shape at its center. The shape gets larger as it approaches and passes. 

A close up view of Comet Hyakutake, a round glowing white comet with a long shadowy tail. Text, A comet's tail can be millions of miles long, but the frozen core is only a few miles across. When Nasa's Hubble space telescope looked closely around the core of Comet Hyakutake, it discovered that pieces of the core had broken off forming their own mini tails. A red image of the bright comet with a dimmer bright spot behind it with its own small tail. 

An image of Comet Hale-Bop, 1997, a bright white comet with a long yellowish tail and a blue streaking tail above it. Text, long before Hale Bopp grew this great tail, Hubble spied the comet while it was still far away, finding a disintegrating lump of the nucleus ejected into space. An image of a glowing orange red lumpy round object with another smaller round object separating from it. Text, comet Linear never became bright enough to see with the naked eye, but hubble's view did not disappoint as Linear erupted, blowing off a piece of its crust, spewing dust into space. Images from Hubble on July 5, 2000, a small glowing red dot. On July 6, 2000 the dot glows brighter. On July 7, 2000, a tiny piece of the glowing dot trails behind it. Text, a chunk of the comet's nucleus drifts away at about 6 miles per hour. On July 26, 2000, comet Linear made its closest approach to the sun. As the comet emerged from the sun's glare, astronomers were astonished to discover that the nucleus was gone. Comet Linear, August 5, 200, from 2.2 meter telescope. An orange red streak. Text, Most telescopes on the ground could find no trace of the core, but Hubble found a shower of mini comets each with its own tail. The sun's radiation had simply unglued the nucleus. This stunning observation supports the theory that comets are loosely bound collections of chunks of ice and dust, each perhaps less than 100 feet across. 

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