In pictures taken on April 20 and April 23, the Hubble Space Telescope has captured a minimum of 30 and 25 fragments of the comet, respectively, traveling collectively in a cluster as they proceed in the direction of the interior Solar System. These images provide further evidence that comet fragmentation is probably common and might even be the dominant mechanism by which the solid, icy nuclei of comets die.
David Jewitt, professor of planetary science and astronomy at UCLA, Los Angeles, and head of one of the two teams to take these photos, said: "Their appearance changes substantially between the two days, so much so that it's quite hard to connect the dots". "I don't know if this is because the individual pieces turn on and off when they reflect sunlight, act like flickering lights on a Christmas tree, or because different shards appear on different days".
On a positive note, visiting assistant research scientist Quanzhi Ye from the University of Maryland believes the incident could bring a more significant opportunity of finding out what happens when asteroids, similar to ATLAS, disintegrate.
The disintegrating ATLAS comet is now located inside the orbit of Mars, at a distance of approximately 145 million kilometres from Earth when the latest Hubble observations were taken. The comet was approximately 91 million miles (146 million kilometers) from Earth when the images were taken. "Most fragmenting comets are too dark to see". Because comets' deaths tend to occur unpredictably, reliable observations of their demise are rare, and astronomers are largely uncertain about what causes them to fragment. ATLAS's fragmentation was confirmed by amateur astronomer Jose de Queiroz, who photographed around three pieces of the comet on 11 April.
One theory suggests comet's nucleus spun itself into pieces because of the gases venting from its icy surface. And by examining the Hubble data, astronomers are hoping that they'll be able to figure out why comets disintegrate.
The Hubble Space Telescope, a former workhorse for NASA and the European Space Agency, is great for capturing images of distant features of our galaxy and even other galaxies, but that doesn't mean it's always looking for objects of interest on the horizon.
Before the comet began to fall apart, NASA estimates it was comparable in length to one or two football fields.
The initial discovery of the asteroid gave astronomers an exciting event to look forward to once the space rock came close enough to Earth to be visible to the naked eye. "Regardless, it's quite special to get a look with Hubble at this dying comet". Scientists haven't had long to study the comet, as it was discovered in December 2019, but as a new set of Hubble images reveals, it's now breaking up right before our very eyes.