The National Astronomical Observatory of Japan?s (NAOJ) Subaru Telescope in Hawaii has captured new images of the Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 comet, which became known as a "lost comet" when it disappeared for 50 years after its discovery in 1930. On May 12 (today) the comet reaches the closest point to the Earth in its 5.4-year elliptical orbit around the sun.

Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, the lost comet

The images show the disintegration of the comet's Fragment B. Short tails can be seen on some of the pieces, which are believed to have broken off recently.

Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, the lost cometAccording to NAOJ, the comet is disintegrating as it orbits the sun, and has broken into at least 50 pieces. The Subaru Telescope images show 13 small fragments near the bright Fragment B. The researchers plan to compare the images with observation data from other telescopes to get a better understanding of the comet's disintegration.

Fragment C, which is the brightest, is visible near the Lyra constellation in the eastern sky at around 12:00 midnight (in Japan), and Fragment B is visible near the Hercules constellation. On May 12, the comet will be 12 million kilometers (7.5 million miles) from the Earth, about 30 times the distance to the moon.

[Sources: Asahi Shimbun, Subaru Telescope press release]