Six-Tailed Asteroid Spotted by Hubble Space Telescope

Image: Six-Tailed Asteroid Spotted by Hubble Space Telescope

Friday, 08 Nov 2013 10:18 AM

By Clyde Hughes

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An asteroid zinging through space with six comet-like tails has been spotted by astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope.

Astronomers told Reuters on Thursday that the asteroid, known as P/2013 P5, is creating a dust stream that looks like bicycle spokes. Asteroids usually do not have tails, noted Reuters.

"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," astronomer David Jewitt with the University of California at Los Angeles told Reuters of the asteroid which was first spotted in August. "It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid."

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The research appears in this week's issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters, according to Reuters.

The Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii spotted the asteroid as a fuzzy point of light in an August sky survey, according Reuters. Astronomers told Reuters said they used Hubble to find the asteroid again, located in the solar system's main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Researchers found in September that that the asteroid had changed shape along with its sprouting six tails.

Astronomers told The Associated Press that the asteroid is rotating so much to the point that its surface is flying apart. Researchers said they believe the asteroid could be a fragment from a larger asteroid damaged in a collision 200 million years ago.

Jessica Agarwal, with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, told Reuters that computer models showed that the dust plumes probably started rising off the asteroid's surface in April 2012.

"P/2013 P5 might be losing dust as it rotates at high speed," Agarwal said  in a statement. "The sun then drags this dust into the distinct tails we're seeing."

According to LiveScience.com, most asteroids in the solar system can be found in a doughnut-like ring in space between Mars and Jupiter. Other asteroids whip around in tight circles closer to the sun than the Earth, while other asteroids the orbit with planets, per LiveScience.com.

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LiveScience said, though, some traveling asteroids take them on paths where they cross paths with planet in the solar system.

Jewitt told Reuters that astronomers will keep looking at the asteroid to see if it eventually breaks up.

"This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come," said Jewitt.

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