Astronomers following the progress of the Hergenrother comet through the inner-solar system are now reporting that the comet is breaking up. Over the past few weeks the comet has been generating "outbursts" of dusty material, and now the object's nucleus has split apart.
"Comet Hergenrother is splitting apart," said Rachel Stevenson, a post-doctoral fellow at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Using the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's (NOAO) Gemini North Telescope on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, we have resolved that the nucleus of the comet has separated into at least four distinct pieces resulting in a large increase in dust material in its coma."
The fragmentation of the comet's nucleus was first detected on October 26 by a team of astronomers at the Remanzacco Observatory in Haleakala, Hawaii using the Faulkes Telescope North. It was also imaged by the WIYN telescope group at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.
The breakup means more material to reflect sunlight, making the comet's coma significantly brighter. The object can be seen through a large telescope, and is currently between the constellations Andromeda and Lacerta.
"The comet fragments are considerably fainter than the nucleus," said James Bauer, the deputy principal investigator for NASA's NEOWISE mission. "This is suggestive of chunks of material being ejected from the surface."
NASA emphasized in its statement that neither the comet, nor its fragments pose a threat to the Earth.
(Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO/Gemini)