Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

February 19, 1996

Periodic Comet Swift-Tuttle
Credit: D. McDavid (Limber Observatory), D.C. Boice (SwRI)

Explanation: Comet Swift-Tuttle, shown above in false color, is the largest object known to make repeated passes near the Earth. It is also one of the oldest known periodic comets with sightings spanning two millennia. Last seen in 1862, its reappearance in 1992 was not spectacular, but the comet did become bright enough to see from many locations with binoculars. To create this composite telescopic image, four separate exposures have been combined, compensating for the motion of the comet. As a result, the stars appear slightly trailed. The inset shows details of the central coma. The unseen nucleus itself is essentially a chunk of dirty ice about ten kilometers in diameter. Comets usually originate in the Oort cloud in the distant Solar System - well past Pluto, most never venturing into the inner Solar System. When perturbed - perhaps by the gravity of a nearby star - a comet may fall toward the Sun. As a comet approaches the Sun, rocks, ice-chunks, gas, and dust boil away, sometimes creating impressive looking tails. In fact, debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle is responsible for the Perseids meteor shower visible every July and August. Comet Swift-Tuttle is expected to make an impressive pass near the earth in the year 2126, possibly similar to Comet Hyakutake this year or Comet Hale-Bopp next year.

Tomorrow's picture: ASCA X-Ray Observatory

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (GMU) & Jerry Bonnell (USRA).
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