Space

Hubble captures crumbling comet in two striking shots

Hubble captures crumbling come...
This Hubble image, taken on April 20, 2020, shows around 30 pieces of the crumbling comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)
This Hubble image, taken on April 20, 2020, shows around 30 pieces of the crumbling comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)
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This Hubble image, taken on April 20, 2020, shows around 30 pieces of the crumbling comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)
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This Hubble image, taken on April 20, 2020, shows around 30 pieces of the crumbling comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)
Hubble snapped these two images of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) as it was falling apart
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Hubble snapped these two images of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) as it was falling apart
This Hubble image, taken on April 23, 2020, shows around 25 pieces of the crumbling comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)
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This Hubble image, taken on April 23, 2020, shows around 25 pieces of the crumbling comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS)
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Hubble has a front row seat to a rare celestial event. The space telescope has snapped some strikingly clear shots of a comet in the process of breaking apart as it approaches the Sun.

Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) was discovered on December 29 last year, by the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS). Over the following months it brightened as it streamed towards the inner solar system, and it was expected that by May it would be bright enough to see with the naked eye from Earth.

But we were robbed of that light show. In early April the comet began to fade instead, and amateur astronomer Jose de Queiroz discovered that it was beginning to disintegrate. So Hubble turned its eye towards the crumbling comet.

The two images were taken on April 20 and 23, when the comet was about 146 million km (91 million mi) from Earth. In the first, the science team spotted around 30 pieces, and 25 in the second. The smallest of these may be about the size of a house, but it’s hard to tell how much overlap there are between those groups of fragments.

"Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it's quite difficult to connect the dots," says David Jewitt, lead researcher of one of the two teams behind the photos. "I don't know whether this is because the individual pieces are flashing on and off as they reflect sunlight, acting like twinkling lights on a Christmas tree, or because different fragments appear on different days.”

Comets are known to fall apart on occasion, but astronomers don’t entirely know what causes this to happen to some but not others. It usually occurs as a comet leaves the chilly outskirts of the solar system and gets closer to the Sun, which warms it up. This melts the ice and creates the tail characteristic of all comets. But in some cases the gas escaping from inside could blast it apart.

"Further analysis of the Hubble data might be able to show whether or not this mechanism is responsible," says Jewitt. "Regardless, it's quite special to get a look with Hubble at this dying comet.”

Source: Hubble

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1 comment
Vernon Miles Kerr
The amazing universe. We are so tiny and so temporary. These pictures are just a hint of what's been going on long before humans walked the Earth and will be going on long after we are but fossils. I don't know why this is so fascinating to me. It's just, knowledge for the sake of knowledge, I guess. Somehow it seems important, but we humans shouldn't feel that important. (Sorry COVID-19-era philosophical hogwash. I'll probably get over it.)