Thursday, March 6, 2014

Astronomers witness mysterious and unique disintegration of asteroid

This series of Hubble Space Telescope images reveals the breakup of an asteroid over a period of several months in late 2013. 

The largest fragments are up to 200 yards in radius, each with "tails" caused by dust lifted from their surfaces and pushed back by the pressure of sunlight. 

The 10 pieces of the asteroid drift apart slowly and show a range of breakup times, suggesting that the disintegration cannot be explained by a collision with another asteroid. 

One idea for the breakup is that the asteroid was accelerated by sunlight to spin at a fast enough rate to fly apart by centrifugal force. 

The images were taken in visible light with Hubble's Wide-Field Camera 3

Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt/UCLA

Astronomers have witnessed for the first time the breakup of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

The discovery is published online March 6 in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Though fragile comet nuclei have been seen falling apart as they near the sun, nothing resembling this type of breakup has been observed before in the asteroid belt. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope photographed the demolition.

"Seeing this rock fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," said David Jewitt, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences and the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy, who led the astronomical forensics investigation.

The crumbling asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first noticed as an anomalous, fuzzy-looking object on Sept. 15, 2013, by the Catalina and Pan-STARRS sky-survey telescopes.

Pan-STARRS sky-survey telescope
A follow-up observation on Oct. 1 with the W.M. Keck telescope on Hawaii's Mauna Kea revealed three co-moving bodies embedded in a dusty envelope that is nearly the diameter of Earth.

"The Keck telescope showed us that this asteroid was worth looking at with Hubble," Jewitt said.

With its superior resolution, the Hubble telescope revealed that there were really 10 embedded objects, each with comet-like dust tails.

The four largest rocky fragments are up to 200 yards in radius, about twice the length of a football field.

The Hubble data showed that the fragments are drifting away from each other at a leisurely pace of one mile per hour—slower than a strolling human.

The asteroid began coming apart early last year, but new pieces continue to emerge in the most recent images.

This makes it unlikely that the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid, which would be instantaneous and violent.

Some of the debris from such a high-velocity smash-up would also be expected to travel much faster than observed.

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