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Hubble snaps pics of ancient sky visitor

March 27, 1996
Web posted at: 8:00 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Even if you've seen comet Hyakutake, easily visible to the naked eye, you might want to take another look -- through the lens of the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

The comet was discovered by amateur astronomer Yuji Hyakutake in Japan on January 30 using a pair of high-power binoculars. The luminous greenish cluster of dots was closest to the Earth on March 25 and will remain visible through May.

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Hubble sees Hyakutake through filters that give the comet a red tint that enables scientists to better examine it.

The cluster of rock and ice is the fifth-closest comet to Earth within this century, and one of the most visible in the northern hemisphere.

The Hubble, with an orbit of 350 miles above the Earth and a full rotation every 96 minutes, is a prime candidate to take snapshots of the comet, which is making its first appearance in about 9,000 years.

The shoot was directed by Harold Weaver from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "I believe we got the heart of the comet," he said.

While sky gazers have been dazzled by its ethereal glow, scientists have been examining the comet's makeup for clues about the origins of the solar system.

New Hubble Space Telescope photos clearly show that as Hyakutake cruises by the sun and is warmed by solar energy, natural geysers erupt with great force through holes in a crust on the comet's surface, Weaver said Wednesday.

Weaver said comets that have made many trips near the sun have developed a crust, a rigid envelope of debris and refrozen ice. As the comet returns to the vicinity of the sun, material under the crust will erupt, forming spectacular jets.

"If the comet has been around the sun before, you get pressure building under the crust," said Weaver. "Then you get a hole blown through this rubble crust and these jets."



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