Weird Newfound Asteroid Sports Six Comet Tails

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals a never-before-seen set of six comet-like tails radiating from a bizzare body in the asteroid belt, designated P/2013 P5. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles), J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research), H. Weaver (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory), M. Mutchler (STScI), and S. Larson (University of Arizona)
This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals a never-before-seen set of six comet-like tails radiating from a bizzare body in the asteroid belt, designated P/2013 P5. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles), J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research), H. Weaver (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory), M. Mutchler (STScI), and S. Larson (University of Arizona)

A newly-discovered asteroid masquerades as a bizarre comet, one that astronomers in a new study are outright calling, “weird and freakish.”

First spotted by the Hawaii-based Pan-STARRS sky survey telescope this Spring, the bizarre object caught  astronomers’ attention because of its unusually fuzzy appearance. The Hubble Space Telescope’s high-resolution cameras were trained on it in September, and that’s when they noticed it’s startling, mutant comet appearancethe asteroid sports 6 tails streaming out into space in all directions.

“It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid,” said lead author of the new study David Jewitt, a astronomer at University of California at Los Angeles in a statement.

“We were dumbfounded when we saw it. Amazingly, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust.”

This artwork shows the structures seen around an active asteroid designated P/2013 P5.  One interpretation is that the pressure of sunlight  sweeps the erupting dust into multiple long tails. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
This artwork shows the structures seen around an active asteroid designated P/2013 P5. One interpretation is that the pressure of sunlight sweeps the erupting dust into multiple long tails. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Astronomers think that the space rock, dubbed P/2013 P5, has had its spin rate increase significantly in the last 5 months for some yet unknown reason. The faster spin rate is causing the asteroid to eject dust in wild, episodic eruptions that lead it to resemble a rotating lawn sprinkler in the newly-released images.

According to one theory, radiation pressure bellowing out from  the sun may have caused P/2013 P5 to spin more rapidly, collecting the ejected dust into comet-like tails.

Jewitt and his team believe the comet-like asteroid may be a fragment of an ancient asteroid collision some 200 million years ago. What we are witnessing now is simply an end-of life phase common to most small, fragmented asteroids in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter.

Which means more such space rocks likely await discovery.

“In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more,” Jewitt said. “This is an amazing object and almost certainly the first of many more to come.”

The comet-like asteroid find is reported online in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

 

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Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.