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The Disruption and Demise of Periodic Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9The impact of the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) into Jupiter this July promises to change our understanding of the outer solar system. More than twenty mountain-sized conglomerates of ice and rock will hit the atmosphere at approx. 50 km/s over the course of a week beginning July 16, releasing approx. 10(exp 4) to 10(exp8) megatons of energy per burst, and providing unique and perhaps pivotal clues to the properties of comets and the physics of massive atmospheres. Because the fragments will strike the far side of Jupiter, data acquisition, analysis and interpretation will be quite sensitive to the actual size and energy of the fragments. We therefore examine an event which took place two summers ago, unnoticed and unobserved: the disruption of SL9 into a "string of pearls' as it passed within the Roche limit at perijove. We first demonstrate, on the basis of timescales of tidal interaction, that the comet could not have broken into 20+ fragments through a hierarchy of brittle fracture events. Next, noting that the tidal stress was too weak to have even fragmented an uncompressed mass of freshly fallen snow, we run models for a strengthless comet held together only by self-gravity. We explore the initial size, density, and rotation. We conclude that a 4 km diameter comet (smaller if a prograde rotator) of density approx. 0.5 g/cu cm disrupts and disperses into a chain of fragments similar to Shoemaker-Levy 9, whether we begin with 21, 85, 169, 700 or 2000 sub-grains. Gravitational reaccumulation is evidently the answer, and there is no need to invoke the presence of 21 "cometesimals" as the subscale of the comet. To explain how a comet can be weaker than uncompacted snow, we show that the ring-plane crossing prior to perijove could have caused total damage. Finally, we compute the tidal stress on impactors as they approach Jupiter this July. Objects of various density are moderately distorted but not disrupted by the time they strike the planet.
Document ID
Document Type
Preprint (Draft being sent to journal)
Asphaug, Erik
(NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Benz, Willy
(Arizona Univ. Tucson, AZ United States)
Cuzzi, Jeffrey
Date Acquired
August 20, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 1994
Subject Category
Meeting Information
Small Bodies in the Solar System and Their Interactions with the Planets(Marienhamn)
Funding Number(s)
PROJECT: RTOP 151-01-60-07
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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