Hubble Captures Asteroid's Odd Death
They're the first such photographs ever
By John Johnson, Newser Staff
Posted Mar 6, 2014 3:54 PM CST
This combination image made available by NASA shows a series of photos from Hubble recording the disintegration of an asteroid from Oct. 29, 2013, to Jan. 14.   (AP Photo/NASA, ESA, UCLA, D. Jewitt)

(Newser) – The Hubble Space Telescope continues to wow astronomers. NASA today released a series of photographs that the AP calls the "first pictures of a disintegrating asteroid." Hubble zoomed in for a closer look after other telescopes spotted something unusual in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in September. Astronomers soon realized they were seeing an asteroid, now named Asteroid P/2013 R3, crumbling before their eyes. Discovery calls it "probably one of the strangest" things ever observed by Hubble.

Scientists have been puzzled because the asteroid is disintegrating so slowly—they were able to pick out 10 different chunks drifting leisurely apart, at roughly one mile per hour. “This is a really bizarre thing to observe," says a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. "We’ve never seen anything like it before." It's unlikely that a collision caused the disintegration given the snail's pace at which it is unfolding (the photos were taken over a series of months beginning in late 2013). The best guess is something called the YORP effect, which Universe Today describes as "a subtle effect from sunlight that can change the asteroid’s rotation rate and basically cause a rubbly-type asteroid to spin apart." (Click for another wild find by Hubble.)

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Mar 6, 2014 11:44 PM CST
It's amazing that scientists can figure out the math that describes the universe (physics), make sound and pictures travel invisibility through the air, make devices that see inside our body, giant metal birds that carry us through the sky, and create a free 100,000 volume encyclopedia you can access from a phone in your hand. Yet strangely, when it comes to taking the temperature of the earth or examining trapped gasses in ice cores, 95% of them resort to lying.
Mar 6, 2014 7:40 PM CST
Why couldn't it have been a collision by something much smaller than it? Kinda like one of those random beer bottle drops that lands at a perfect angle, bouncing up in slow motion and loosely shattering in a beer-bottle shaped mosaic, hanging there like a glittering fallen angel doubling back dramatically on its own wings - chest out, head back - before landing to the floor in a relatively small radius.. Dunno if everyone's experienced this, maybe I've drunk (drank?) enough beers to have seen it happen a couple times... (hic)
Mar 6, 2014 7:11 PM CST
TIL asteroids are living creatures.