The Hubble Space Telescope saw comet Atlas shatter: it identified about 30 fragments of its core wrapped in the comet’s dust tail, which appear as lights that flash intermittently. The images were taken between April 20 and 23, when the comet was 146 million kilometers from Earth.
“The appearance of the fragments changes substantially between the two days,” said astronomer David Jewitt, of the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), head of one of the two groups that photographed the comet with Hubble. “I don’t know – he added – if this happens because the individual fragments turn on and off while reflecting the sunlight, behaving like intermittent lights on a Christmas tree, or because different fragments appear on different days”.
The images of the comet Atlas taken by the Hubble space telescope on 20 and 23 April (source: NASA, ESA, STScI, D. Jewitt / UCLA)
For Quanzhi Ye, of the University of Maryland, head of the second observation group, “it was exciting to observe the phenomenon because it is rare to observe similar events: it happens once or twice in a decade”. In fact, most of the shattering comets are too weak to be seen.
The images taken by Hubble could provide clues as to why the comet shattered. One idea is that the nucleus broke due to the action of the jets of gas during the approach of the comet to the Sun.
Discovered on December 29, 2019 by the Atlas robotic telescope system in Hawaii, the comet became rapidly brighter until mid-March, so much so that it was thought that in May it could become visible to the naked eye and be one of the most spectacular comets of the last 20 years . Soon, however, Atlas’ brightness began to weaken because its core had shattered.
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