Hubble Space Telescope view of a Comet on a Collision Course with Jupiter
These images of Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 (1993e) fragments were made by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The cometary chunks are expected to plunge into Jupiter's atmosphere in July 1994. The comet was torn into numerous pieces by the massive planet's gravitational pull as it passed by Jupiter in summer 1992.
The fragments are due to hit Jupiter in a 5 1/2 day period centered on July 19, possibly producing spectacular results depending on the size of the pieces. The fragments are expected to impact with an energy release many times that of nuclear warheads.
The 11 largest comet fragments are estimated to be 1 1/4 to 2 1/2-miles (2-4 kilometers) in diameter. Hubble first observed the comet on July 1,1993. Recent images, taken using Hubble's newly improved optics between January 24 and 27, have given an even clearer view. The new images also indicate the comet might be continuing to fragment. Over the next few months, Hubble will monitor the comet's approach to Jupiter, which is some 500 million miles (805 million kilometers) from the Sun and is the largest of the nine planets in the solar system. (Earth is 93 million miles, or 150 million kilometers, from the Sun and is the fifth largest planet.)
Upper strip: This mosaic image of the comet consists of two new Wide Field Camera images and one new Planetary Camera image. Twenty comet pieces are visible.
Lower right: This image was taken with the Planetary Camera before Hubble was serviced by astronauts on an 11-day mission in December 1993. The image is of the region of the brightest comet fragment. Four comet fragments are barely discernible in this view.
Lower left: This image was taken with the Planetary Camera after the Hubble servicing mission, and the comet fragments can be seen much more clearly. Although it is difficult to discern by a comparison of these "before" and "after" images, analysis shows that the separations and orientations of the four comet fragments have changed dramatically in the 6 month span between the two exposures.