Comet spotted breaking apart as it swings by Earth

A frozen space rock is going to pieces as it passes through our cosmic neighborhood over the next few months.

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Slooh Observatory

A comet appears to be cracking up over our heads at this moment. Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann was seen breaking apart via Slooh telescopes in Chile on Sunday and captured in GIF-tastic glory above.

The slow destruction of this primordial space rock has been ongoing for quite a while. The earliest evidence of its disintegration was first observed on its 1995 visit. During its trip around the sun in 2006, observations by Hubble and other telescopes revealed Comet 73P was flying by with an entourage of over 40 discernible fragments that had broken off the main structure.

"It certainly feels like it's only a matter of time before comet 73P is destroyed, disintegrating into a trail of cosmic dust," Slooh astronomer Paul Cox said in a statement.

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This is just kind of the way it goes for comets, which are made up of ice, dust and rock. Gravity, solar radiation and solar wind are constantly threatening to pull comets apart on each swing through the inner solar system, a trip Comet 73P makes every 5.4 years.

This means each pass by us could be the comet's last. In fact, we might be witnessing its final days right now. It will reach perihelion -- its closest approach to the sun before whipping around our star to head back out toward Jupiter -- on March 16. Cox says Comet 73P may be hard-pressed to survive that moment.

"This puts the comet's nucleus under tremendous stress from the Sun's gravitational forces -- and it appears that this may have been responsible for carving up the nucleus in two," he said.

The sun is known for snuffing out other notable comets in this way, as it likely did to the anticipated Comet ISON a few years ago.

And just for the record, we don't know yet where fragments from the comet might end up. Back in 2006, the internet went wild with rumors that parts of the comet would impact Earth and cause a huge tsunami, although NASA made it clear none of the fragments would pass closer than 20 times the distance between us and the moon.

Fortunately, astronomers are certain to keep a close eye on this crumbling comet, and so will we. Keep looking up.

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