The NASA / ESA Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the clearest view of C / 2019 Y4 ATLAS, which is breaking down into pieces.
About 30 fragments were recorded on April 20, but only three days later, on April 23, only 25 were detected by the telescope.
“Their appearance has changed dramatically over the course of two days,” said David Jevitt, the leader of one of the two groups that photographed the comet, as well as a professor of planetology and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I don’t know if this is because individual fragments flash and go out when they reflect sunlight, acting like flickering lights on a Christmas tree, or because different fragments appear on different days.”
Kwangji Ye from the University of Maryland and the leader of the second team expressed his excitement about the observations, saying: “Such events are very cool to observe, and therefore they do not happen very often.”
“Most of the comets that the splinter broke away from are too dim to be seen.” Events of this magnitude only happen once or twice a decade.”
The results are evidence that comet fragmentation is actually common, the researchers said. Because this is fast and unprecedented, astronomers are still unsure of the cause of fragmentation — and Hubble’s sharp photographs may provide new keys to decay.
Hubble identifies fragments the size of a house, but before the collapse, the entire core was the length of two football fields.
One theory is that the original core shattered into pieces due to the jet action of gas evolution from sublimating ice. Since the vent is not evenly distributed throughout the comet, it contributed to decay.
The comet was first discovered in December 2019 by the Asteroid Terrain-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) in Hawaii. The comet shone brightly until mid-March, which led some astronomers to the idea that it could become visible to the naked eye in May. However, the comet suddenly began to fade, after which its fragmentation occurred.
The fragmented Comet is currently located inside the orbit of Mars, approximately 145 million kilometers from Earth. The Atlas will approach our planet on May 23 at a distance of about 115 million kilometers.