How Comets Work

By: Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D.  | 

Comets Can Break Apart

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was broken into 20 pieces by Jupiter's gravity.
Photo courtesy NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute

As comets pass through the inner solar system, they can be broken into pieces by Jupiter's gravity. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was broken into 20 pieces, each of which collided with Jupiter in one of the most spectacular examples of interplanetary impacts in recorded history.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Jupiter
Artist's rendering of the collision of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Jupiter
Photo courtesy NASA/JPL
Jupiter planet image
Here is a Hubble Space Telescope image of Jupiter after pieces of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit the planet. The dark spots are the impact sites.
Photo courtesy NASA/JPL

Recently, comet LINEAR was also broken into fragments by the sun's gravity as it passed the sun.