The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observing campaign on comet Shoemaker-Levy 9

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Science  03 Mar 1995:
Vol. 267, Issue 5202, pp. 1282-1288
DOI: 10.1126/science.7871424


The Hubble Space Telescope made systematic observations of the split comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) (P designates a periodic comet) starting in July 1993 and continuing through mid-July 1994 when the fragments plunged into Jupiter's atmosphere. Deconvolutions of Wide Field Planetary Camera images indicate that the diameters of some fragments may have been as large as approximately 2 to 4 kilometers, assuming a geometric albedo of 4 percent, but significantly smaller values (that is, < 1 kilometer) cannot be ruled out. Most of the fragments (or nuclei) were embedded in circularly symmetric inner comae from July 1993 until late June 1994, implying that there was continuous, but weak, cometary activity. At least a few nuclei fragmented into separate, condensed objects well after the breakup of the SL9 parent body, which argues against the hypothesis that the SL9 fragments were swarms of debris with no dominant, central bodies. Spectroscopic observations taken on 14 July 1994 showed an outburst in magnesium ion emission that was followed closely by a threefold increase in continuum emission, which may have been caused by the electrostatic charging and subsequent explosion of dust as the comet passed from interplanetary space into the jovian magnetosphere. No OH emission was detected, but the derived upper limit on the H2O production rate of approximately 10(27) molecules per second does not necessarily imply that the object was water-poor.