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Hubble Space Telescope spots asteroid with six comet-like tails

Hubble Space Telescope images of asteroid P/2013 P5 showing its unusual comet-like tails. Photo Credit: NASA, ESA

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to observe objects in our solar system’s asteroid belt have made a unique find, an asteroid about 112 million miles from Earth with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it like the spokes of a wheel. The asteroid, designated as P/2013 P5, resembles a rotating lawn sprinkler, unlike all other known asteroids, which appear as tiny points of light. NASA announced this first of its kind discovery in a press release on Thursday November 7. The research team was perplexed by the asteroid’s unusual appearance.

“We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it,” said lead investigator David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. “Even more amazing, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid.”

Scientists using the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii discovered P/2013 P5 in August. Hubble discovered the multiple tails when it took a more detailed image on September 10. When Hubble took a second picture on September 23, the asteroid’s appearance had completely changed.  P/2013 P5 looked as if its entire structure had swung around. “We were completely knocked out,” Jewitt said.

P/2013 P5 has been occasionally ejecting dust for at least five months. Astronomers do not believe the tails are because of an impact with another asteroid because they have not observed a large quantity dust ejected into space all at once.  It is possible that the asteroid is spinning so fast that its surface is beginning to fly apart. Astronomers will continue to observe P/2013 P5 to see if the dust leaves the asteroid in the equatorial plan, which would be consistent with a rotational breakup.  Researchers will also attempt to measure the asteroid’s spin rate.

Jewitt believes that rotational breakup is a common phenomenon in the asteroid belt. “In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more,” Jewitt said. “This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come.”

P/2013 P5 is thought to be a piece from an asteroid collision that happened approximately 200 years ago.  Meteorites from these fragments show evidence of having been heated to temperatures of at least 1.500 degrees Fahrenheit. This indicates the asteroid is mostly likely made of metamorphic rock and therefore is not capable of holding ices as comets do.


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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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