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News Release 16 of 1057

September 15, 2016 01:00 PM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2016-35

Hubble Takes Close-up Look at Disintegrating Comet

September 15, 2016: Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami survived for 4.5 billion years in the frigid Kuiper Belt, a vast reservoir of icy bodies on the outskirts of our solar system. The objects are the leftovers from our solar system's construction. But within the last few million years, the unlucky comet was gravitationally kicked to the inner solar system by the outer planets. The comet, dubbed 332P, found a new home, settling into an orbit just beyond Mars. But the new home, closer to the sun, has doomed the comet. Sunlight is heating up Comet 332P's surface, causing jets of gas and dust to erupt. The jets act like rocket engines, spinning up the comet's rotation. The faster spin rate loosened chunks of material, which are drifting off the surface and into space.

The Hubble Space Telescope caught the latest cloud of debris ejected by Comet 332P. The images, taken over three days in January 2016, represent one of the sharpest, most detailed observations of a comet breaking apart. Hubble reveals about 25 building-size chunks from the comet floating through space at roughly the walking speed of an adult. Material will continue to break away from Comet 332P. Astronomers estimate that the comet, which has survived for 4.5 billion years, will be gone in another 150 years.

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Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)