In August, doomsday prophets speculated that icy comet Elenin would wreak havoc on Earth. Now new images from an amateur Australian astronomer are showing a rapid dimming in Comet Elenin, leading some astronomers to believe that the comet may be falling apart.
Michael Mattiazo, an amateur astronomer from Australia, captured two images of Elenin -- one on Aug. 19 and the other on Sept. 6 -- that show the comet could be disintegrating. The video footage of Elenin shows that the comet began losing some cohesion around late August and early September as it neared the sun.
The comet reached its closest point to the sun on Sept. 10.
I had suspicions about this comet since discovery in December 2010 that it would not survive its perihelion passage [the comet's passage closest to the sun], Mattiazzo told Space.com in an email.
Russian astronomer Leonid Elenin discovered the comet, officially known as C/2010 X1 Elenin, in December.
C/2010 X1 Elenin is an intrinsically faint [small] comet making its first passage through the inner solar system, Mattiazzo said.
Officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said they are still waiting for the comet to reappear from the near-sun pass before they make any new observations.
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a U.S. and European satellite observatory, might see Elenin by Sept. 29, according to Space.com. Scientists expect Elenin to pass closest to Earth on Oct. 16. At that time, the comet, which is about two to three miles (three to five kilometers) wide, will be about 22 million miles (35 million kilometers) from the planet.
But Mattiazzo said he is used to seeing comets fade away as they draw close to the sun.
I witnessed the spectacular demise of C/1999 S4 LINEAR in July 2000, when it appeared as an elongated cigar shaped smudge through binoculars, Mattiazzo told Space.com. This time around, C/2010 X1 Elenin is more difficult to observe since it is located very low in the western evening sky and only then, observable from the Southern Hemisphere. Let's hope that northerners have something to see by the time it reappears in October morning skies. Perhaps a very faint, long, diffuse smudge.
In August, when Elenin began passing through the inner solar system, numerous apocalyptic scenarios speculated that it would bring doomsday to Earth.
But NASA quickly shut down those rumors, noting that Elenin's closest approach to Earth isn't close enough and that the comet was too small to cause damage.
Any approximate alignments of comet Elenin with other celestial bodies are meaningless, and the comet will not encounter any dark bodies that could perturb its orbit, nor will it influence us in any way here on Earth, Don Yeomans, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said.
NASA has also said it didn't give Elenin much press because it is small and faint.
Several new comets are discovered each year, and you don't normally hear about them either, according to NASA officials.