Rather than a single nucleus with a long tail, this "squashed comet" was composed of at least 21 fragments held together like a string of pearls. The comet was near its farthest point from Jupiter when discovered March 25, 1993 by Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, a husband-wife team at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. and David Levy, a Tucson astronomer, hence its name: Shoemaker-Levy 9. Calculations showed that the original single nucleus was ripped apart by Jupiter's gravity in July 1992, when it passed within 50,000 kilometers of the planet. Plotting the orbit soon revealed that Shoemaker-Levy's days were numbered.

ANIMATION: The Comet's Last Orbit (1,500 KB mpeg)
Greg Foss of the PSC scientific visualization group used SOFTIMAGE to create this video animation showing Shoemaker-Levy 9's last orbit of Jupiter. First, the comet breaks into fragments on its final close pass and then the "string of pearls" loops out and around the planet one time before each fragment crashes into the dark side.

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