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The Hubble Space Telescope has allowed astronomers to clearly appreciate the breakup of the comet ATLAS, also known by its catalog name, C / 2019 Y4. The telescope captured images sharp enough that about 30 fragments of the comet can be recognized in them on April 20 and about 25 pieces on April 23.
The comet was discovered in December last year by the robotic astronomical tracking system ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) in Hawaii, United States. It brightened rapidly until mid-March, with some astronomers initially predicting that it might be visible to the naked eye in May, making it one of the most spectacular comets seen in the past two decades. But despite the forecasts, the comet began to darken rapidly, leading astronomers to hypothesize that the nucleus might be fragmenting. The fragmentation of the ATLAS was confirmed by amateur astronomer José de Queiroz, who photographed around three pieces of the comet on April 11.
New observations from the Hubble Space Telescope on the comet's breakup on April 20 and 23 confirm that the fragments are all enveloped in a comet dust tail swept by sunlight. These images provide further evidence that comet fragmentation is likely a common occurrence and could even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid and icy nuclei of comets are destroyed.
“Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it is quite difficult to connect the dots.“Explains David Jewitt of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), United States, head of one of the two teams that observed the dying comet with Hubble.
“This is really exciting, both because these events are impressive to watch and because they don't happen very often. Most fragmented comets are too dimly bright to see. Events on a scale like this only happen once or twice a decade"Says Quanzhi Ye, from the University of Maryland in the United States and a principal member of the second Hubble observing team.
Comet ATLAS, or rather the collection of its pieces, is currently in the orbit of Mars, at a distance from Earth of approximately 145 million kilometers when the last observations were made with Hubble. The comet will reach its closest to Earth on May 23, when it approaches up to 115 million kilometers from our world. Eight days later it will pass only 37 million kilometers from the Sun. (Source: NCYT Amazings)