Astronomy

Hubble Captures The Sharpest Image Of A Disintegrating Comet Ever

This Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks near the center of the image. They form a trail larger than the width of the continental U.S. The fragments are drifting away from the comet at a leisurely pace of just a few miles an hour. The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. It measures 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

Breaking up isn’t hard to do if you’re a comet. They’re fragile creatures subject to splitting, cracking and vaporizing when heated by the Sun and yanked on by its powerful gravitational pull.

Recently, the Hubble Space Telescope captured one of the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart, which occurred 67 million miles from Earth. In a series of images taken over a three-day span in January 2016, Hubble revealed 25 building-size blocks made of a mixture of ice and dust that are drifting away from the main nucleus of the periodic comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami at a leisurely pace, about the walking speed of an adult.

This animation shows the movement of individual comet fragments relative to the parent nucleus, the bright object at lower left, on January 26, 27 and 28 UT. The true motions are very slow, on the order of several miles an hour, and show a fan-like divergence from the parent. Look closely and you’ll see that some of the fragments change in brightness and even shape from day to day. Researcher David Jewitt thinks this is due to continuing outgassing, rotation and breakup of the fragments. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

The observations suggest that the comet may be spinning so fast that material is ejected from its surface. The resulting debris is now scattered along a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. Much the same happens with small asteroids, when sunlight absorbed unequally across an asteroid’s surface spins up its rotation rate, either causing it to fall apart or fling hunks of itself into space.

Being made of loosely bound frothy ice, comets may be even more volatile compared to the dense rocky composition of many asteroids. The research team suggests that sunlight heated up the comet, causing jets of gas and dust to erupt from its surface. We see this all the time in comets in dramatic images taken by the Rosetta spacecraft of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Because the nucleus is so small, these jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet’s rotation. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off into space.

Comet 168P/Hergenrother was photographed by the Gemini telescope on Nov. 2, 2012 and shows three fragments that broke away from the nucleus streaming from the coma down the tail. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Gemini

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

In the animation you can see the comet splinters brighten and fade as icy patches on their surfaces rotate in and out of sunlight. Their shapes even change! Being made of ice and crumbly as a peanut butter cookie, they continue to break apart to spawn a host of smaller cometary bits. The icy relics comprise about 4% of the parent comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide (20-60 meters). They are moving away from each other at a few miles per hour.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe photographed this big crack in the neck region of the double-lobed comer 67P. It’s several feet wide and about 700 feet long. Could it be an indicator that the comet will break into two in the future? Credit: ESA/Rosetta

Comet 332P was slightly beyond the orbit of Mars when Hubble spotted the breakup. The surviving bright nucleus completes a rotation every 2-4 hours, about four times as fast as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (a.k.a. “Rosetta’s Comet”). Standing on its surface you’d see the sun rise and set in about an hour, akin to how frequently astronauts aboard the International Space Station see sunsets and sunrises orbiting at over 17,000 mph.

Don’t jump for joy though. Since the comet’s just 1,600 feet (488 meters) across, its gravitational powers are too meek to allow visitors the freedom of hopping about lest they find themselves hovering helplessly in space above the icy nucleus.

This illustration shows one possible explanation for the disintegration of asteroids and comets. The effects of sunlight can cause an asteroid to slowly increase its rotation rate until the loosely bound fragments drift apart due to centrifugal forces. In the case of comets, jets of vaporizing ice have a rocket-like effect that can spin up a nucleus to speeds fast enough for the comet to eject pieces of itself. Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and A. Feild (STScI)

Comet 332P was discovered in November 2010, after it surged in brightness and was spotted by two Japanese amateur astronomers, Kaoru Ikeya and Shigeki Murakami. Based on the Hubble data, the team calculated that the comet probably began shedding material between October and December 2015. From the rapid changes seen in the shards over the three days captured in the animation, they probably won’t be around for long.


Spectacular breakup of Comet 73P in 2006

More changes may be in the works. Hubble’s sharp vision also spied a chunk of material close to the comet, which may be the first salvo of another outburst. The remnant from still another flare-up, which may have occurred in 2012, is also visible. The fragment may be as large as Comet 332P, suggesting the comet split in two.

“In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away,” Jewitt said. “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.”


During its closest approach to the Sun on November 28, 2013, Comet ISON’s nucleus broke apart and soon vaporized away, leaving little more than a ghostly head and fading tail.

Astronomers using the Hubble and other telescopes have seen breakups before, most notably in April 2006 when 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, which crumbled into more than 60 pieces.  Unlike 332P, the comet wasn’t observed long enough to track the evolution of the fragments, but the images are spectacular!

The researchers estimate that Comet 332P contains enough mass to endure another 25 outbursts. “If the comet has an episode every six years, the equivalent of one orbit around the sun, then it will be gone in 150 years,” Jewitt said. “It’s the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner Solar System has doomed it.”

This annotated image shows the fragments measured by Jewitt and team and their direction of movement. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

332P/Ikeya-Murakami hails from the Kuiper Belt, a vast swarm of icy asteroids and comets beyond Neptune. Leftover building blocks from early Solar System and stuck in a deep freeze in the Kuiper Belt, you’d think they’d be left alone to live their solitary, chilly lives but no. After nearly 4.5 billion years in this icy deep freeze, chaotic gravitational perturbations from Neptune kicked Comet 332P out of the Kuiper Belt.

As the comet traveled across the solar system, it was deflected by the planets, like a ball bouncing around in a pinball machine, until Jupiter’s gravity set its current orbit. Jewitt estimates that a comet from the Kuiper Belt gets tossed into the inner solar system every 40 to 100 years.

I wish I could tell you to grab your scope for a look, but 332P is currently fainter than 15th magnitude and located in Libra low in the southwestern sky at nightfall. Hopefully, we’ll see more images in the coming weeks and months as Jewitt and the team continue to follow the evolution of its icy scraps.

Bob King

I'm a long-time amateur astronomer and member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). My observing passions include everything from auroras to Z Cam stars. I also write a daily astronomy blog called Astro Bob. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, will publish in April. It's currently available for pre-order at Amazon and BN.

Recent Posts

A Machine-Learning Algorithm Just Found 301 Additional Planets in Kepler Data

Using a new type of deep-learning algorithm, a team of NASA scientists have detected 301…

4 hours ago

Astronomers Find a Planet That Orbits its Star in Just 16 HOURS!

Mercury is the speed champion in our Solar System. It orbits the Sun every 88…

10 hours ago

The Severe Pacific Northwest Flooding Seen From Space

The severe flooding that happened this month was captured by Earth Observation satellites, showing the…

10 hours ago

A Space Telescope With one job: Find Habitable Planets at Alpha Centauri

Breakthrough Initiatives just announced a collaborative effort to launch a space telescope that will search…

1 day ago

“Incident” that Occurred During Loading Pushes the Webb Launch Date to Dec. 22nd

An incident occurred at Europe's Spaceport as engineers were preparing the James Webb Space Telescope,…

2 days ago

Mother and Daughter Win Tickets for Suborbital Space Ride With Virgin Galactic

A wellness coach from Antigua and her daughter are getting tickets for a suborbital space…

2 days ago