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NASA's Hubble Captures Rare Sight of Asteroid Disintegrating in to Small Fragments [VIDEO]

First Posted: Mar 07, 2014 07:05 AM EST
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A team of astronomers got lucky and witnessed for the first time an asteroid breakup into smaller fragments in the vast space. The entire disintegration process was seen using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.

The space agency's powerful telescope captured the rare event of the asteroid, named P/2013 R3, crumble into smaller pieces. The astronomers using Hubble focused on this asteroid after other telescopes identified something unusual in the asteroid belt between the orbit of Mars and Jupiter last year in the month of September, reports  Newser.

"Seeing this rock fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," David Jewitt, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences, said in a news release.

The fuzzy looking anomalous cosmic object was initially observed on Sept. 15, 2013, using Catalina and Pan-STARRS sky-survey telescopes. Further observations noticed three co-moving objects that were surrounded in a dusty cover almost equivalent to the diameter of the Earth.

Using Hubble they confirmed that the co-moving objects were 10 smaller pieces of objects, each of which had comet-like tails made of cosmic dust. There were four large rocky pieces that measured 200 yards in radius, twice the length of a football field.

The fragments were seen moving away from each other at a slow pace, almost a mile per hour. The break up began last year but the new fragments continue to show up in the latest images.

"This is a really bizarre thing to observe - we've never seen anything like it before," co-author Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany, was quoted in Newser. "The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible."

The astronomers were puzzled looking at the slow rate at which the asteroid was disintegrating. This slow pace ruled out the chances of a head-on collision as that would have triggered a more violent and quicker disintegration. There is still a possibility that the space rock experienced smaller collisions with another asteroid in the past and due to this the fragments of the asteroid broke apart. Neither was the split caused due to the pressure of interior ice warming and vaporizing.

The astronomers rather suggest that the asteroid came under the clutches of YORP torque, the subtle effect of the sunlight. Under this effect the rotation rate of the space rock gradually increases due to which the component pieces similar to the grapes on a stem, are gently pulled apart as a result of the centrifugal force.

For this to take place, the candidate P/2013 R3 must have a fragile interior. Several small asteroids have a rubble pile like internal structure due to the constant damage.

"This is the latest in a line of weird asteroid discoveries, including the active asteroid P/2013 P5, which we found to be spouting six tails," Agarwal said in a statement."This indicates that the Sun may play a large role in disintegrating these small Solar System bodies, by putting pressure on them via sunlight."

 The debris of the asteroid weighing as much as 200,000 tons will offer a rich source of meteoroids for years to come. A small fraction of it is expected to blast across the sky as meteors.

The discovery was reported in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

              

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