Astronomers have captured the sharpest ever images of a comet disintegrating in space.
Using NASA’s Hubble Telescope, researchers took a series of photos which show ice and dust being ejected from the spinning rock’s surface.
The celestial debris is scattered over a course of 3,000 miles, 67 million miles from Earth.
Scientists at UCLA suggest solar heating has caused comet 332P to start breaking up as it hurtles towards the sun at 50,000 miles per hour.
Our star’s heat leads to gas and dust being expelled from the comet, which in turn causes it to spin upwards, according to the study.
But as it spins faster and faster, chunks of material disintegrate, drifting into space at just a few miles an hour.
Each chunk is only a couple of hundred feet wide, but Hubble’s resolution is so strong that it can capture the process in unprecedented detail.
David Jewitt, a UCLA astrophysicist leading the research team, said: “In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away.
“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.”
The researchers believe the comet has enough mass to survive 25 more 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 just the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner solar system has doomed it.”
The study is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.