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 Fast and Accurate 3-D Imaging Technique to Track Optically-Trapped Particles
24.04.2015 | Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology

nachricht Tau Ceti: The next Earth? Probably not
23.04.2015 | Arizona State University

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: Fast and Accurate 3-D Imaging Technique to Track Optically-Trapped Particles

KAIST researchers published an article on the development of a novel technique to precisely track the 3-D positions of optically-trapped particles having complicated geometry in high speed in the April 2015 issue of Optica.

Daejeon, Republic of Korea, April 23, 2015--Optical tweezers have been used as an invaluable tool for exerting micro-scale force on microscopic particles and...

Im Focus: NOAA, Tulane identify second possible specimen of 'pocket shark' ever found

Pocket sharks are among the world's rarest finds

A very small and rare species of shark is swimming its way through scientific literature. But don't worry, the chances of this inches-long vertebrate biting...

Im Focus: Drexel materials scientists putting a new spin on computing memory

Ever since computers have been small enough to be fixtures on desks and laps, their central processing has functioned something like an atomic Etch A Sketch, with electromagnetic fields pushing data bits into place to encode data.

Unfortunately, the same drawbacks and perils of the mechanical sketch board have been just as pervasive in computing: making a change often requires starting...

Im Focus: Exploding stars help to understand thunderclouds on Earth

How is lightning initiated in thunderclouds? This is difficult to answer - how do you measure electric fields inside large, dangerously charged clouds? It was discovered, more or less by coincidence, that cosmic rays provide suitable probes to measure electric fields within thunderclouds. This surprising finding is published in Physical Review Letters on April 24th. The measurements were performed with the LOFAR radio telescope located in the Netherlands.

How is lightning initiated in thunderclouds? This is difficult to answer - how do you measure electric fields inside large, dangerously charged clouds? It was...

Im Focus: On the trail of a trace gas

Max Planck researcher Buhalqem Mamtimin determines how much nitrogen oxide is released into the atmosphere from agriculturally used oases.

In order to make statements about current and future air pollution, scientists use models which simulate the Earth’s atmosphere. A lot of information such as...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

HHL Energy Conference on May 11/12, 2015: Students Discuss about Decentralized Energy

23.04.2015 | Event News

“Developing our cities, preserving our planet”: Nobel Laureates gather for the first time in Asia

23.04.2015 | Event News

HHL's Entrepreneurship Conference on FinTech

13.04.2015 | Event News

 
Latest News

Electrons Move Like Light in Three-Dimensional Solid

24.04.2015 | Materials Sciences

Connecting Three Atomic Layers Puts Semiconducting Science on Its Edge

24.04.2015 | Materials Sciences

Understanding the Body’s Response to Worms and Allergies

24.04.2015 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>