Science

NASA shares latest Hubble photos of fragments from doomed comet ATLAS

In images taken on April 20 and April 23, the Hubble Space Telescope has captured at least 30 and 25 fragments of the comet respectively, travelling together in a cluster as they continue towards the inner Solar System.

The researchers remarked that the images captured by Hubble make it clear that comet fragmentation is a common thing.

Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it's quite hard to connect the dots.

Jewitt added that he is not sure if the appearance changes "because the individual pieces are flashing on and off as they reflect sunlight or different fragments appear on different days". "Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade", said the leader of the second Hubble observing team, Quanzhi Ye, of the University of Maryland.

Also known as comet ATLAS, C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) is a comet with a near-parabolic orbit and an orbital period of about 6,000 years.

Hubble Space Telescope image of comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) on April 20, 2020.

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Recently, NASA observed ATLAS seemed to be glowing brighter and would be seen on May 23 by regular gazers at a relatively close 115 million km away. He likewise said most of the comets that experience breaking down is trying to see. Because this happens quickly and unpredictably, astronomers remain largely uncertain about the cause of fragmentation. On the left is the comet in 30 pieces on April 20, 2020 and on the right is the comet on April 23 in 25 pieces. The images are in incredibly high resolution, capturing fragments down to the size of a house. Because such venting is probably not evenly dispersed across the comet, it enhances the breakup. This NASA-supported survey project for Planetary Defense operates two autonomous telescopes that look for Earth-approaching comets and asteroids.

However, the object abruptly began to get dimmer, leading astronomers to speculate that its nucleus may be fragmenting, or even disintegrating.

The initial discovery of the asteroid gave astronomers an exciting event to look forward to once the space rock came close enough to Earth to be visible to the naked eye.

As the comet disintegrates on its journey around the Sun, some of the pieces that have broken off are as big as a house. Jewitt said that further analysis of the data could possibly confirm or rule out whether this off-gassing is what caused the comet to break up, according to a Hubble press release. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus may have been no more than the length of two football fields (180 meters). Scientists haven't had long to study the comet, as it was discovered in December 2019, but as a new set of Hubble images reveals, it's now breaking up right before our very eyes.

C/2019 Y4 was located inside the orbit of Mars, approximately 91 million miles from Earth, when the latest Hubble observations were taken.



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