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:
Ray Villard | EurekAlert!
Rosetta’s comet contains ingredients for life
30.05.2016 | Universität Bern
Present-day measurements yield insights into clouds of the past
27.05.2016 | Paul Scherrer Institut (PSI)
A biological and energy-efficient process, developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck, converts nitrogen compounds in wastewater treatment facilities into harmless atmospheric nitrogen gas. This innovative technology is now being refined and marketed jointly with the United States’ DC Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water). The largest DEMON®-system in a wastewater treatment plant is currently being built in Washington, DC.
The DEMON®-system was developed and patented by the University of Innsbruck 11 years ago. Today this successful technology has been implemented in about 70...
Permanent magnets are very important for technologies of the future like electromobility and renewable energy, and rare earth elements (REE) are necessary for their manufacture. The Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg, Germany, has now succeeded in identifying promising approaches and materials for new permanent magnets through use of an in-house simulation process based on high-throughput screening (HTS). The team was able to improve magnetic properties this way and at the same time replaced REE with elements that are less expensive and readily available. The results were published in the online technical journal “Scientific Reports”.
The starting point for IWM researchers Wolfgang Körner, Georg Krugel, and Christian Elsässer was a neodymium-iron-nitrogen compound based on a type of...
In the Beyond EUV project, the Fraunhofer Institutes for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen and for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF in Jena are developing key technologies for the manufacture of a new generation of microchips using EUV radiation at a wavelength of 6.7 nm. The resulting structures are barely thicker than single atoms, and they make it possible to produce extremely integrated circuits for such items as wearables or mind-controlled prosthetic limbs.
In 1965 Gordon Moore formulated the law that came to be named after him, which states that the complexity of integrated circuits doubles every one to two...
Characterization of high-quality material reveals important details relevant to next generation nanoelectronic devices
Quantum mechanics is the field of physics governing the behavior of things on atomic scales, where things work very differently from our everyday world.
When current comes in discrete packages: Viennese scientists unravel the quantum properties of the carbon material graphene
In 2010 the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of the exceptional material graphene, which consists of a single layer of carbon atoms...
24.05.2016 | Event News
20.05.2016 | Event News
19.05.2016 | Event News
30.05.2016 | Materials Sciences
30.05.2016 | Materials Sciences
30.05.2016 | Trade Fair News