Hubble captures ATLAS disintegrating

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope isn’t resting on its laurels. While space watchers were preparing its 30th birthday celebrations, it was still going about its business.

These new images provide astronomers with the sharpest view yet of the breakup of Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS). The telescope resolved roughly 30 fragments of the fragile comet on 20 April and 25 pieces on 23 April.

ATLAS was discovered last December and brightened quickly until mid-March, leading some astronomers to anticipate it might be visible to the naked eye by May – and become one of the most spectacular comets seen in the last two decades. 

However, it abruptly began to get dimmer, and its fragmentation was confirmed by amateur astronomer Jose de Queiroz, who photographed around three pieces on 11 April. 

Hubble’s new observations reveal that the broken fragments are enveloped in a sunlight-swept tail of dust, and they provide further evidence that fragmentation is probably common and might be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die. 

ATLAS is currently inside the orbit of Mars, approximately 145 million kilometres from Earth. It will make its closest approach to Earth (115 million kilometres) on 23 May, and eight days later will skirt within 37 million kilometres of the Sun.

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