This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals the ancient Comet 332P/Ikeya-Murakami disintegrating as it approaches the sun. The observations represent one of the sharpest views of an icy comet breaking apart.
The comet debris consists of a cluster of building-size chunks near the center of the image. They form a 3,000-mile-long trail, larger than the width of the continental U.S. The fragments are drifting away from the comet, dubbed Comet 332P, at a leisurely pace, roughly the walking speed of an adult.
The main nucleus of Comet 332P is the bright object at lower left. It measures 1,600 feet across, about the length of five football fields.
Hubble spied the debris on Jan. 26, 27, and 28, 2016, when the comet was 150 million miles from the sun, slightly beyond the orbit of Mars. The 4.5-billion-year-old comet, which originated from the Kuiper Belt, probably shed the debris over a short period of time, from October to December 2015.
The comet shards brighten and dim as icy patches on their surfaces rotate into and out of sunlight. The icy relics, totaling about 25 pieces, comprise about 4 percent of the comet and range in size from roughly 65 feet wide to 200 feet wide.
The tiny white dot just above the comet may be another fragment, signaling the beginning of another outburst. These observations provide insight into the volatile behavior of comets as they approach the sun and begin to vaporize, unleashing dynamical forces.
This image was taken on Jan. 27, 2016, with Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.