May 19, 2020 - Science

Hubble Space Telescope catches rare glimpse of comet breaking apart

Photo: NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA)/Q. Ye (University of Maryland)
Photo: NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA)/Q. Ye (University of Maryland)

Comets are fickle cosmic beasts. Many are beautifully bright hundreds of millions of miles from the Sun before breaking apart as they get closer to the star.

What's new: The Hubble Space Telescope caught a rare glimpse as Comet ATLAS broke apart at the end of April.

  • "This is really exciting — both because such events are super cool to watch and because they do not happen very often. Most comets that fragment are too dim to see. Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade," Quanzhi Ye of the University of Maryland said in a statement.

Why it matters: Some scientists think these comet breakups occur when ices rapidly change from solid to gas form, effectively tearing itself asunder, but without directly watching it happen, it's hard to know exactly why these comets die.

Go deeper: Astronomer captures a brightening comet approaching the Sun

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