"We know that comets sometimes disintegrate, but we don't know much about why or how they come apart," said David Jewitt, of the University of California at Los Angeles, in a statement. "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."
Although the comet is pretty small as far as comets go, measuring approximately 500 meters wide, its debris field is huge, with a trail extending over 3,000 miles long. But what's causing this comet to break apart?
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"In the past, astronomers thought that comets die when they are warmed by sunlight, causing their ices to simply vaporize away," said Jewitt. "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."
Comet 332P is disintegrating as it has been "spun up" by solar heating. As sunlight gradually heats the comet's surface, ices turn from a solid into a vapor without passing through a liquid phase. This process is known as sublimation and causes the comet to fire jets of vapor and dust into space. As this happens, pressure from the jets cause the comet to spin, like a very slow-moving Catherine wheel firework. As comets are composed mostly of loosely-packed material and not solid lumps, this spinning can cause chunks of comet to break away.
In the case of Comet 332P, that's exactly what Hubble is seeing -- around 25 large chunks are slowly moving away from the main comet after being broken free by the spinning (centrifugal) force. This is how a comet dies in the inner solar system. And it's beautiful.
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As Comet 332P has a six-year orbit around the sun, it's going to endure this kind of outburst every six years, allowing astronomers to estimate how long it has until it's completely disintegrated. "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," added Jewitt. "It's the blink of an eye, astronomically speaking. The trip to the inner solar system has doomed it."
Jewitt's team also noted that the chunks of debris are undergoing their own spinning deaths, causing the larger chunks to break into smaller and smaller chunks, eventually fizzling away.
The research chronicling Comet 332P's slow death has been published in the The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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