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Hubble Captures the Best View of a Disintegrating Comet Yet

by Becky Ferreira
Sep 18 2016, 7:00pm

Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami. Image: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA)

We tend to think of the Sun as the essential life-giver, what with all of its contributions to fostering ecosystems on Earth.

But our star can also be a stone cold comet killer, as demonstrated by new imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope showing Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami being brutally flayed and broken apart by solar radiation. These images were snapped over the course of three days beginning on January 26, 2016, when the 1,600-foot-long comet was 150 million miles from Sun, around the same distance as the orbit of Mars.

The comet blasting out a sparkly cloud of debris. Image: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA)

The comet itself is the brightest object, on the left, while the sparkly points moving towards the right of the frame are chunks of debris that were blasted away from the main body after a 2015 outburst. This trail of icy detritus stretches for 3,000 miles behind the comet. All of the objects pictured brighten whenever their iciest, most reflective patches are angled toward the Sun.

According to new research about the observations published on Thursday in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, the images offer the most comprehensive view of comet disintegration ever recorded.

"We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don't know much about why or how they come apart," said lead author David Jewitt, an astronomer based at UCLA, in a statement.

"The trouble is that it happens quickly and without warning, and so we don't have much chance to get useful data," he continued. "With Hubble's fantastic resolution, not only do we see really tiny, faint bits of the comet, but we can watch them change from day to day. And that has allowed us to make the best measurements ever obtained on such an object."

At 4.5 billion years old, Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami is nearly as ancient as the solar system itself. For most of its lifespan, it was happy to soar around with its comet buddies in the frozen Kuiper Belt surrounding the solar system. But then, one day, it had a run-in with Neptune that gravitationally slingshotted it into the realm of the planets, and toward the unforgiving heat of the Sun. It was in this altered trajectory that the comet was first discovered, in 2010.

NASA footage of Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami after it was discovered in 2010.

As exposure to the Sun's intense rays warms the comet, powerful jets blast large building-sized pieces off its body. These explosive outbursts act like "rocket engines," according to NASA, accelerating the spin of the comet to dizzying rotation speeds. An observer on the surface of Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami would see the Sun rise and set within an hour. Talk about a recipe for a puke-a-thon.

At this rate, the comet probably only has 150 years left to live. Of course, that still means it will probably outlive you or I. But considering that the object has been knocking around since before the birth of life on Earth, "it's the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking," according to Jewitt.

"In Comet 332P we may be seeing a comet fragmenting itself into oblivion," he added. "The trip to the inner solar system has doomed it."

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Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami