Hubble telescope captures images of disintegrating comet

Space Science

MYSTERY WIRE — The Hubble telescope has recorded many iconic images of deep space over time. Now, we can add a few more to the list. Within the last month, Hubble has taken images of a well known comet breaking up into at least two dozen pieces.

According to NASA, the comet is named ATLAS or C/2019 Y4. The best images of the comet breaking apart were taken on April 20 and 23, 2020. ATLAS is nowhere near to Earth. In fact, when breaking apart it was 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Earth.

These two Hubble Space Telescope images of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS), taken on April 20 (left) and April 23, 2020, provide the sharpest views yet of the breakup of the solid nucleus of the comet. Hubble’s eagle-eye view identifies as many as 30 separate fragments. Hubble distinguishes pieces that are roughly the size of a house. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus of the comet may have been the length of one or two football fields. Astronomers aren’t sure why this comet broke apart. The comet was approximately 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Earth when the images were taken.
Credits: NASA, ESA, STScI and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

If any of the icy comet survives this breakup, it will get closer to Earth, but not close. On May 23 what remains of it will be its closest to Earth at 72 million miles (116 million kilometers) away. Which would place it further away than Mars but only about a third of the distance to Jupiter.

A comet disintegrating like this is not uncommon. NASA researchers think because this happens quickly and unpredictably, astronomers don’t actually know the cause for the fragmentation.

Hubble scientists estimate the individual pieces they are seeing in the images to be as small as the size of a house. And leading up to the breakup, the entire nucleus may have been no more than the length of two football fields.

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The comet was discovered on December 29, 2019, by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) robotic astronomical survey system based in Hawaii. This is also how it got its non-scientific name.

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