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SCIENCE & SPACE

Hubble captures the shattering of a comet

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(CNN) -- NASA and the European Space agency have released new images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing the dramatic breakup of comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3. The comet's nucleus has shattered into more than 33 pieces, and is likely to continue to disintegrate.

Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 goes around the sun every 5.4 years, and is on course to make the closest approach of this orbit on June 7. Along the way, it will pass 7.27 million miles (11.7 million kilometers) from Earth on May 12. No piece is projected to hit Earth.

European astronomers captured a series of still images of the fragmentation using an instrument aboard the Hubble called the Advanced Camera for Surveys. They assembled those images into a time-lapse movie that shows the breakup in the kind of detail not possible with ground-based telescopes. Astronomers say the smallest pieces of comet visible in the Hubble images are probably the size of a house. (Watch the comet shatter in the depths of space -- 1:05)

The comet was discovered by German astronomers Arnold Schwassmann and Arno Arthur Wachmann in 1930. Astronomers observed its initial breakup into four pieces in 1995.

Comets are "dirty snowballs," chunks of ice and rock left over from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, scientists say. They circle the sun in irregular orbits, moving as far away as the outer fringes of the solar system before swinging back in.

When comets get close to the sun, they heat up. Trapped gases inside the nucleus expand and sometimes explode out. Particularly energetic "jets" of gas can blow a comet apart, or make it vulnerable to the forces of gravity as it passes by planets or the Sun.

Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 is not the first comet astronomers have watched shatter. Shoemaker-Levy 9 was ripped to pieces by the gravity of the planet Jupiter in July 1992, made a final pass around the sun, and then slammed into Jupiter's atmosphere nearly two years later.

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