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 appearance—the 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.”
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.