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Fireworks end as last piece of super-comet hits Jupiter

THE LAST fragment of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter yesterday, marking a spectacular finale to the greatest fireworks display in history.

Astronomers watched the event through the telescopes of the Anglo-Australian Observatory near Sydney. 'It seems to have been one of the brighter events we have monitored here,' David Crisp, a Nasa scientist working at the observatory, said.

The impact zone from this last fragment was estimated to cover an area twice the size of Earth, Peter McGregor, of the Australian National University, said.

On Thursday the comet hit the giant planet with a cluster of four fragments that crashed over a 20-hour period. Fragments Q1, Q2, R and S all exploded within about 60 miles (100km) of each other. The largest of all impacts was fragment G, on Monday.

Astronomers around the world have been overwhelmed by the past week's unexpectedly large impacts, caused as the ice, dust and rocks of the comet vaporise into gigantic fireballs within seconds of ploughing into the frozen Jovian atmosphere at a speed of 135,000mph.

David Hughes, lecturer in physics at Sheffield University, said last week he feared the death of the comet might be a non-event. 'It's greatly exceeded every expectation I had,' he said yesterday. 'I was wrong. I didn't expect to see such plumes and dust clouds.'

It will take scientists months to analyse fully all the data that has been collected since the first fragment hit Jupiter last Saturday.

Despite receiving a series of jolts, any one of which would have wiped out life on Earth as we know it, Jupiter's atmospheric maelstrom and sheer size are likely to erase the evidence of this week, Dr Hughes said. 'I wouldn't be suprised that in a couple of weeks Jupiter is as Jupiter was.'

The wealth of scientific data to be analysed comes from more than a dozen of the world's largest telescopes - including the Vatican Observatory near Rome - and a handful of space-based instruments, ranging from the dollars 1.5bn Hubble Space Telescope to the Galileo space probe, the only device to have a direct view of the impacts on the far side of Jupiter.

Iwan Williams, professor of astronomy at Queen Mary and Westfield College in London, said the past week has marked the start of a huge data-processing exercise. 'We're talking about months before all the data is analysed.'