Astronomers spotted a six-tailed asteroid using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii. The object appeared to be spouting dust from its nucleus much like spouts of water flow from a lawn sprinkler.
The six-tailed asteroid was first spotted in August and scientists named it P/2013 P5. They noted that it looked more fuzzy than a typical asteroid, which normally appears as a tiny point of light.
Using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in September, the astronomers discovered the asteroid’s six comet-like tails, reports Space.com. Researcher David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles commented, “We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it.”
Jewitt added, “Even more amazing, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid.”
NBC News notes that the team announced the 1,400-foot-wide asteroid’s discovery on August 27, but didn’t discover its six tails until later. Another team member, Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute of Solar System, used a computer model to determine that he streams of dust may have come from a series of outbursts as far back as April 15.
Radiation pressure from sunlight could have cause the dust to stretch into six tails. That same solar radiation pressure could be causing the asteroid to spin like a top to a degree that its dusty material is sliding toward the equator, breaking into dust, and drifting into space. So far, about 100 to 1,000 tons of dust has been lost.
Astronomers intend to continue studying the six-tailed asteroid to discover whether the dust is being ejected from the asteroid’s equatorial plane. If it is, then it’s possible the asteroid is going through a rotational breakup. Jewitt explained that it’s possible this is how many small asteroids meet their ends. He added:
“In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more. This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come.”
But for now, the astronomers will sit and watch the six-tailed asteroid.
[Image via NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)]