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Hubble images reveal details of comet's breakup

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Shower of "mini comets" after breakup of comet LINEAR's nucleus. This image was taken by the Hubble on August 5  

(CNN) -- One comet, made out of many.

That's the surpising model revealed by comet LINEAR, whose dramatic demise was photographed late last month by the Hubble Space Telescope.

A series of close-up images reveal that the comet left behind a small armada of "mini-comets" after it broke up as it passed within 72 million miles of the sun on July 26, scientists with the Space Telescope Science Institute said this week.

The comet at first appeared to disintegrate completely, but scientists revised their interpretation after viewing the latest Hubble images.

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Though comets have been known to break apart and vanish before, this is the first time astronomers are getting a close-up view of the dismantling of a comet's nucleus due to solar warming. The results support the popular theory that comet nuclei are really made up of a cluster of smaller icy bodies called "cometesimals," according to a statement from the institute.

Without the clarity of the Hubble Telescope -- about 10 times better than most ground-based telescopes, and about 500 times more powerful than most home telescopes -- the event would have received little attention from researchers.

Hubble was able to magnify the comet and measure the rapid increase in brightness as it erupted even though the comet was 74 million miles away from the Earth's surface.

Comet LINEAR as viewed by the Hubble on July 6  

The outburst was likened by scientists to a volcanic explosion, though temperatures below the surface of the comet are about minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 75 C).

Eruptions increase in frequency the closer comets get to the sun. Scientists believe there is an increase in activity because comets such as LINEAR have a very fragile and "fluffy" composition, making them easily susceptible to the sun's heat.

The LINEAR comet was named for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology team that discovered it in September.



RELATED STORIES:
Hubble investigates mystery of a dying star
August 3, 2000
Comet erupts violently as Hubble watches
July 28, 2000
Hubble watches star demolish its surroundings
July 13, 2000
Hubble spies 'cosmic searchlight' in nearby galaxy
July 6, 2000

RELATED SITE:
Space Telescope Science Institute
Hubble Heritage Project
Hubble SM3A - Home

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