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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK
Comet break-up pictured by Hubble
Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 (Image: Nasa/Esa/Weaver/Mutchler/Levay)
The image shows the break-up of one fragment into smaller pieces
The break-up of a comet has been shown in extraordinary detail by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

The images reveal the comet has crumbled into over three dozen fragments; many more than had been shown from ground-based observations.

Astronomers say the Hubble images will provide an unprecedented opportunity to study a comet's demise.

The disintegrating comet will pass Earth on 6 May at a distance of 11.7 million km (7.3 million miles).

Comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, discovered in 1930 by German astronomers, orbits the Sun every 5.4 years. Its break-up was first spotted in 1995 when observers noticed the comet had split into four chunks.

The latest pictures have shown that the larger fragments of the comet are breaking into smaller pieces which are seen accelerating away from the parent nucleus. Some of these smaller chunks are then dissipating completely over the course of several days.

Astronomers believe the comet's collapse is speeding, and it is not yet known if it will survive its next swing around the Sun.

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