The Hubble Space Telescope has captured how the distant Comet C / 2019 Y4, also known as the ATLAS, disintegrates into dozens of pieces. It is more common for comets to fall apart, but it is quite unique that this is clearly portrayed.
The images were taken on April 20 and 23, shortly before the satellite's 30th anniversary. It was previously suspected that ATLAS was breaking up, after the object became less and less visible to researchers.
ATLAS was first spotted in December 2019 by astronomers in the U.S. state of Hawaii. Until March this year, the comet was incredibly bright, and was even predicted to be visible to the naked eye in May, but from March, the bright light tail began to dim.
An amateur astronomer photographed three fragments of the ATLAS comet on April 11, after which Hubble was focused on the icy light tail. Breaking up comets is incredibly fast and virtually unpredictable, which makes Hubble's images quite unique.
The images show the various debris, each about the size of a house. Some pieces appear visible in one photo, but not in the other. This could be because the chunks reflect light differently and therefore twinkle in the sunlight.
Hubble captured the images as the comet flew 90 million miles from Earth, in the orbit of the planet Mars. On May 23, the object comes closest to Earth, about 115 million kilometers away.
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