Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

NASA's Hubble Telescope Witnesses Asteroid's Mysterious Disintegration

07.03.2014

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the never-before-seen break-up of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

Fragile comets, comprised of ice and dust, have been seen falling apart as they near the sun, but nothing like this has ever before been observed in the asteroid belt.


This series of Hubble Space Telescope images reveals the breakup of an asteroid over a period of several months starting in late 2013. The largest fragments are up to 180 meters (200 yards) in radius. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA)

"This is a rock, and seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," said David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles, who led the astronomical forensics investigation.

The crumbling asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first noticed as an unusual, fuzzy-looking object by the Catalina and Pan STARRS sky surveys on Sept. 15, 2013. A follow-up observation on October 1 with the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii, revealed three bodies moving together in an envelope of dust nearly the diameter of Earth.

"The Keck Observatory showed us this thing was worth looking at with Hubble," Jewitt said. "With its superior resolution, space telescope observations soon showed there were really 10 embedded objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 400 yards in diameter, about four times the length of a football field."

Hubble data showed the fragments drifting away from each other at a leisurely one mph.  The asteroid began coming apart early last year, but new pieces continue to reveal themselves, as proved in the most recent images.

It is unlikely the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid, which would have been instantaneous and violent by comparison to what has been observed. Debris from such a high-velocity smashup would also be expected to travel much faster than observed. Nor is the asteroid coming unglued due to the pressure of interior ices warming and vaporizing.

This leaves a scenario in which the asteroid is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight, which causes the rotation rate of the asteroid to gradually increase. Eventually, its component pieces -- like grapes on a stem -- succumb to centrifugal force and gently pull apart. The possibility of disruption in this manner has been discussed by scientists for several years, but never reliably observed.

For this scenario to occur, P/2013 R3 must have a weak, fractured interior -- probably as the result of numerous non-destructive collisions with other asteroids. Most small asteroids are thought to have been severely damaged in this way. P/2013 R3 is likely the byproduct of just such a collision sometime in the last billion years.

With the previous discovery of an active asteroid spouting six tails, named P/2013 P5, astronomers are finding more evidence the pressure of sunlight may be the primary force causing the disintegration of small asteroids -- less than a mile across-- in our solar system.

The asteroid's remnant debris, weighing about 200,000 tons, will in the future provide a rich source of meteoroids. Most will eventually plunge into the sun, but a small fraction of the debris may one day blaze across our skies as meteors.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/hubble

J.D. Harrington
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-5241
j.d.harrington@nasa.gov

Ray Villard
Space Science Telescope Institute, Baltimore, Md.
410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514
Villard@stsci.edu

Ray Villard | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: Flight Hubble Mysterious NASA Observatory STScI Space Telescope asteroids collision diameter fragments

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Distant planet's interior chemistry may differ from our own
01.09.2015 | Carnegie Institution

nachricht Interstellar seeds could create oases of life
28.08.2015 | Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: An engineered surface unsticks sticky water droplets

The leaves of the lotus flower, and other natural surfaces that repel water and dirt, have been the model for many types of engineered liquid-repelling surfaces. As slippery as these surfaces are, however, tiny water droplets still stick to them. Now, Penn State researchers have developed nano/micro-textured, highly slippery surfaces able to outperform these naturally inspired coatings, particularly when the water is a vapor or tiny droplets.

Enhancing the mobility of liquid droplets on rough surfaces could improve condensation heat transfer for power-plant heat exchangers, create more efficient...

Im Focus: Increasingly severe disturbances weaken world's temperate forests

Longer, more severe, and hotter droughts and a myriad of other threats, including diseases and more extensive and severe wildfires, are threatening to transform some of the world's temperate forests, a new study published in Science has found. Without informed management, some forests could convert to shrublands or grasslands within the coming decades.

"While we have been trying to manage for resilience of 20th century conditions, we realize now that we must prepare for transformations and attempt to ease...

Im Focus: OU astrophysicist and collaborators find supermassive black holes in quasar nearest Earth

A University of Oklahoma astrophysicist and his Chinese collaborator have found two supermassive black holes in Markarian 231, the nearest quasar to Earth, using observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The discovery of two supermassive black holes--one larger one and a second, smaller one--are evidence of a binary black hole and suggests that supermassive...

Im Focus: What would a tsunami in the Mediterranean look like?

A team of European researchers have developed a model to simulate the impact of tsunamis generated by earthquakes and applied it to the Eastern Mediterranean. The results show how tsunami waves could hit and inundate coastal areas in southern Italy and Greece. The study is published today (27 August) in Ocean Science, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU).

Though not as frequent as in the Pacific and Indian oceans, tsunamis also occur in the Mediterranean, mainly due to earthquakes generated when the African...

Im Focus: Self-healing landscape: landslides after earthquake

In mountainous regions earthquakes often cause strong landslides, which can be exacerbated by heavy rain. However, after an initial increase, the frequency of these mass wasting events, often enormous and dangerous, declines, in fact independently of meteorological events and aftershocks.

These new findings are presented by a German-Franco-Japanese team of geoscientists in the current issue of the journal Geology, under the lead of the GFZ...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Networking conference in Heidelberg for outstanding mathematicians and computer scientists

20.08.2015 | Event News

Scientists meet in Münster for the world’s largest Chitin und Chitosan Conference

20.08.2015 | Event News

Large agribusiness management strategies

19.08.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

Siemens sells 18 industrial gas turbines to Thailand

01.09.2015 | Press release

An engineered surface unsticks sticky water droplets

01.09.2015 | Materials Sciences

New material science research may advance tech tools

01.09.2015 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>