On May 2, 1930, Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Wachmann found something they weren't quite expecting. While examining a photographic plate from their asteroid survey, the astronomers found a comet. This was the third and last comet Schwassman and Wachmann would discover. Garnering attention from astronomers around the world, comet 73P/Schwassman-Wachmann 3 brightened to 6th magnitude by the end of May 1930. But despite the many observations which produced what was believed a reliable orbit, astronomers were not able to recover comet 73P during its predicted return nearly five and a half years later. In fact, the comet went unseen until 1979 when Austrailian astronomers happened upon it during an asteroid survey. Three orbits later in 1995, Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 put on an unexpectedly grand display. In September 1995, the comet brightened by five magnitudes and, later in December, astronomers realized the comet had split into multiple fragments. Fragments B and C have consistently been the brightest, including during the comet's last visit to our neighborhood in 2000 and 2001.
Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 comes to opposition on May 12, 2006. Astronomers have found more than 100 fragments--more than 40 with designations--and it's clear this comet is disintegrating before our very eyes. Fragments B and C have consistently been the brightest and are visible in binoculars from a dark sky site. Fragments G and R have also, at times, been observable in large aperture amateur telescopes. But how long will 73P survive? Are we witnessing its last visit as a comet to our solar neighborhood?
Click on the below link to see my sketches and observations of Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3.
Click on the below links to navigate this region of Cosmic Voyage.
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Revised: April 30, 2006 [WDF]