Context. The split Jupiter family comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 was monitored between January 21 and May 25 2006, for 24 nights. Aims. The goals of the campaign were to characterize the two principal comet components (C and B) and the smaller component G during their approach to perihelion, and study differences and commonalities in their evolution to obtain insight into the nature of the nuclei (gas and dust). We aimed to assess the chemical homogeneity/heterogeneity of the different components, the presence of jets and other coma structures, the rotation axis, the long-term activity evolution, and the detection of new fragmentation events. Methods. Long-slit spectra and optical broadband images were acquired using the CAFOS instrument at the 2.2-m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CSIC-MPG). Data obtained in service mode consisted of spectra and Johnson R filter images. By observing for four nights close to perigee, the comet could be imaged in the Johnson UBVRI filters. When possible, we analyzed the radial profile of the dust brightness and we derived the dust and gas production rates, the dust reddening, and the N-S profiles of the CN, C2, and C3 column densities. The analysis of the morphological evolution of coma structures and the determination of the rotation axis is performed in a separate paper. Results. We found that components C and B behave differently during most of our observations. While component C did not show any sudden increase in dust productivity, as measured by Afp, component B was characterized by a higher activity variation, exhibiting two outburst peaks and fragmentation events. Excluding outburst dates, component B always had lower dust productivity than component C. We also found differences in the behavior of the dust brightness radial profiles and in the dust colors. Differences in the dust colors are found also with respect to component G. In the spectral analysis, we found that both C and B components seem to be carbon-chain depleted, their compositions being almost the same. This indicates that the pre-split original, intact nucleus probably had a homogenous composition. A two-dimensional color map of component B on May 13 shows relative color variations in the inner coma that can be interpreted qualitatively in terms of Mie theory as fragmentation of silicate dust particles emanating from the nucleus. © ESO 2009.
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