08 November 2013

NASA identifies a "weird and freakish object"

From a HubbleSite release:
Normal asteroids should appear simply as tiny points of light. But this asteroid, designated P/2013 P5, has six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it like spokes on a wheel.
Because nothing like this has ever been seen before, astronomers are scratching their heads to find an adequate explanation for its out-of-this-world appearance...

One interpretation is that the asteroid's rotation rate increased to the point where its surface started flying apart, ejecting dust in episodic eruptions starting last spring. The team rules out a recent asteroid impact scenario because a lot of dust would be blasted into space all at once, whereas P5 has ejected dust for at least five months...

The asteroid could possibly have been spun up if the pressure of sunlight exerted a torque on the body. If the asteroid's spin rate became fast enough, Jewitt said, the asteroid's weak gravity would no longer be able to hold it together. Dust might avalanche downslope towards the equator, and maybe shatter and fall off, eventually drifting into space to make a tail. So far, only a small fraction of the main mass, perhaps 100 to 1,000 tons of dust, has been lost. The 700-foot-radius nucleus is thousands of times more massive.

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