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[Slashdot] - Hubble Captures Breakup of Comet ATLAS

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The Hubble Space Telescope has captured the breakup of Comet ATLAS, a.k.a. C/2019 Y4. "The telescope resolved roughly 30 fragments of the fragile comet on April 20 and 25 pieces on April 23," reports Phys.Org. From the report: The Hubble Space Telescope's new observations of the comet's breakup on April 20 and 23 reveal that the broken fragments are all enveloped in a sunlight-swept tail of cometary dust. These images provide further evidence that comet fragmentation is probably common and might even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die. [...] Because comet fragmentation happens quickly and unpredictably, reliable observations are rare. Therefore, astronomers remain largely uncertain about the cause of fragmentation. One suggestion is that the original nucleus spins itself into pieces because of the jet action of outgassing from sublimating ices. As this venting is likely not evenly dispersed across the comet, it enhances the breakup. [...] Hubble's crisp images may yield new clues to the breakup. The telescope has distinguished pieces as small as the size of a house. Before the breakup, the entire nucleus may have been no more than the length of two football fields. The disintegrating ATLAS comet is currently located inside the orbit of Mars, at a distance of approximately 145 million kilometres from Earth when the latest Hubble observations were taken. The comet will make its closest approach to Earth on 23 May at a distance of approximately 115 million kilometres, and eight days later it will skirt within 37 million kilometres of the Sun. You can view an animation of Hubble's observations on YouTube.

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