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LOOK: Hubble Space Telescope Captures the Slow Death of 4.5-Billion-Year-Old Comet

Sep 17, 2016 06:36 AM EDT
 Comet 332P (Jan. 28, 2016)
This image of Comet 332P was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 on Jan. 28, 2016.
(Photo : NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)/Press Release Images/HubbleSite)

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has bore witness to a rare cosmic occurrence -- the slow death of a 4.5-billion-year-old comet, slowly disintegrating to space.

According to a news release from HubbleSite, the Hubble Space Telescope has recorded, in extreme detail, the breakdown of Comet 332P or 332P/Ikeya-Murakami 67 million miles from Earth. The series of images was taken in January within a three-day span and showed 25 large blocks of ice and dust -- approximately the size of a building -- slowly drifting away from the comet.

NASA notes that Comet 332P might be spinning so fast as it approaches the sun, resulting in materials being ejected from its surface. The ejected materials now have scattered and made a 3,000-mile trail of debris.

Comet 332P/Ikeya-Mirakami Disintegration Sequence
(Photo : NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)/Press Release Images/HubbleSite)
This video, made from a sequence of Hubble Space Telescope images, shows the slow migration of building-size fragments of Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami over a three-day period in January 2016. The pieces broke off of the main nucleus in late 2015 as the icy, ancient comet approached the sun in its orbit.

Past observations in 2010 note that Comet 332P, which is about 1,600 across, have been deteriorating for some time and is rotating quite fast. This is because as the comet approaches the sun, jets of gas and dust erupt on its surface, making it spin rapidly and lose materials in the process, Space.com reports.

"We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don't know much about why or how they come apart. The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, and so we don't have much chance to get useful data," explained lead researcher David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles.

Jewitt further added that Hubble's rare snaps have helped scientists observe the comet in detail and allowed them to get measurements of the comet.

"In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away. Either nothing would be left over or there would be a dead hulk of material where an active comet used to be. But it's starting to look like fragmentation may be more important. In Comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion," Jewitt said.

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