eso9601 — Science Release
Maverick Comet Splits During Dramatic Outburst
5 January 1996: A few months ago, Periodic Comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 underwent a dramatic and completely unexpected, thousand-fold brightening. At that time, the cause for this interesting event was unknown. However, observations with the two largest ESO telescopes have now shown that the "dirty snowball" nucleus of this comet has recently split into at least four individual pieces. There is little doubt that the outburst and the splitting event(s) are closely related and that the greatly increased dust and gas production is due to "fresh" material of the icy cometary nucleus becoming exposed to the surrounding space for the first time.