Hubble Space Telescope captures one of the closest encounters between a comet and Earth. Comet 252P/LINEAR flew pass Earth on April 4.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured one of the closest encounters between a comet and Earth.
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The close-up images were taken on April 4 when comet 252P/LINEAR flew pass Earth at a distance of mere 8.7 million miles. A couple of weeks ago, the comet made its closest approach to Earth on March 21. At that time, it was about 3.3 million miles away, making it the fifth closest encounter ever. To put things into perspective, that is 14 times the distance between our planet and the Moon. This also marks Hubble’s closest observations of a celestial object other than Moon.
Comets are small icy bodies that heat up and begin to outgas when they pass close to the sun and this comet passing close by Earth could reveal more details about ‘cosmic snowballs’ of gas, dust and rocks.
“Comet 252P is one of the smallest comets we know of. Our main goal is to determine its size and study how comets become smaller and smaller as they pass around the sun,” said project leader Jian-Yang Li. “From this we will infer the properties of building blocks of planets at the start of the solar system. In addition, we will also study other dynamic properties of the comet, such as its rotation and how it releases dust under the heating of the Sun.”
The rare close-up images show a narrow jet of dust ejected from the nucleus of the icy comet. The nucleus is very tiny less than one mile across and could not have been visible if it was not caught by the sharp eyes of Hubble Space Telescope. As the comet travels close to the Sun, the nucleus gets warms and leaves trail of dust and gas behind.
In the image, the jet can also be seen changing its direction. It is an evidence that comet’s nucleus is spinning which in turn cause to rotate jet as well.
“Because comets are usually only a few kilometers in size and probably less than 1 kilometer for this comet, reliable measurement of size is best done when they are close to us,” said Li. “That’s why the close approach to Earth of this comet offered us a great opportunity to study it.”
Comet 252P/LINEAR is travelling away from Earth and Sun and will be soon out of our solar system. Its orbit will bring it back to the inner solar system in 2021 but comet will not be anywhere close to the Earth as it was this time around.
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