NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured a spectacular cosmic event. The celebrated telescope observed comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) disintegrating approximately 146 million kilometers (91 million miles) from Earth.
Hubble snagged images of comet ATLAS exploding like aerial fireworks, as it broke apart into more than 30 pieces, each roughly the size of a house.
The comet was approximately 91 million miles (146 million km) from Earth when the images were taken.
— NASA Goddard (@NASAGoddard) April 29, 2020
The comet was first identified on December 19, 2019, by the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System), a robotic astronomical observation system based in Hawaii. The system utilizes two autonomous telescopes to scan space for comets and asteroids that could potentially threaten Earth.
According to a NASA press release, following its discovery, the comet brightened quickly in mid-March. It then abruptly started to get dimmer soon after, which prompted astronomers to speculate that the icy core of the comet may be disintegrating.
On April 11, Jose de Queiroz, an amateur astronomer, captured a photograph of three pieces of the comet confirming its disintegration.
“This is really exciting — both because such events are super cool to watch and because they do not happen very often,” said Quanzhi Ye, the leader of one of two teams that photographed the doomed comet. “Most comets that fragment are too dim to see. Events at such scale only happen once or twice a decade.”
The comet disintegrated approximately 146 million kilometers (91 million miles) from Earth. To put that into context, the Moon orbits the Earth at a distance of approximately 384,402 km (238,856 mi), and the closest approach Earth makes with Mars is 57.6 million kilometers (35.8 million miles).