NASA 'Dumbfounded' by 6-Tailed Comet

(OK, technically it's a 'comet-like' asteroid)
By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 8, 2013 4:35 PM CST
These Hubble images show the strange comet-like object.   (NASA)

(Newser) – The Hubble telescope has spotted a spectacular, perplexing object in the middle of the Asteroid Belt: a rock with six "comet-like" dust tails streaming behind it. "We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," David Jewitt, the head of the astronomy team studying the P/2013 P5, said in a NASA release. "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 seeing an asteroid."

The team hypothesizes that the sun's radiation set the 260-yard-wide rock spinning—thanks, Discovery explains, to the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack effect—so quickly that it lost structural integrity. Using modeling, one team member calculated six dates when the asteroid likely ejected dust into space. So far, it has likely ejected as much as 1,000 tons of dust into space, but that's still a tiny fraction of its mass. "This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many," Jewitt says. "In astronomy, when you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more." (Read more NASA stories.)

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