Hubble Spots Multi-Tailed Active Asteroid | Astronomy

Hubble Captures Rare Active Asteroid

Hubble Captures Rare Active Asteroid

Clear images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have provided researchers with new insight into asteroid Gault's unusual past. Dusty trails like these are commonly associated with icy comets, which slowly break down and sublimate under the huge pressure of the Sun. By researching the material that this unstable asteroid releases into space, astronomers can get a glimpse into the history of planet formation in the early ages of the Solar System. Visible in the image are two debris tails, which experts say are signs that the asteroid is disintegrating.

Measuring 2.3 miles across, the space rock known as 6478 Gault lies in the inner region of the asteroid belt, about 214 million miles (344 million kilometers) from the Sun.

There are around 800,000 known asteroids in the asteroid belt beyond Mars, but astronomers estimate that this kind of crack-up happens only once per year.

But according to NASA, this type of behaviour is believed to be an incredibly rare occurrence of maybe one disintegrating asteroid per year. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers can study the disintegration of this asteroid without having to send a spacecraft to retrieve samples. Image credit: NASA / ESA / K. Meech & J. Kleyna, University of Hawaii / O. Hainaut, European Southern Observatory.

"This self-destruction event is rare", explained Olivier Hainaut (European Southern Observatory, Germany).

"All the large grains, about the size of sand particles, are close to the object and the smallest grains are the farthest away because they are being pushed fastest by pressure from sunlight". Two long comet-like tails are streaming from asteroid Gault, a 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer-wide) world that's spinning so fast it's shedding.

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The trail was first observed on January 5, 2019, by the NASA-supported Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) telescope in Hawaii. The shorter tail is about a quarter as long.

Given enough time, both streamers are expected to fade out and disperse through space. When sunlight heats an asteroid, infrared radiation escaping from its warmed surface carries off momentum as well as heat. This creates a tiny force that can cause the asteroid to spin faster and faster. Landslides on the object can release rubble and dust into space, leaving behind a tail of debris, as seen here with asteroid Gault.

These dust puffs were caused, ultimately, by Gault's superfast spin rate, which the researchers nailed down in the new study.

Asteroid Gault is the second ever space rock whose spinning was linked to the YORP effect.

"Gault is the best "smoking-gun" example of a fast rotator right at the two-hour limit", said team member Jan Kleyna of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. "Active and unstable asteroids such as Gault are just now being detected because of new survey telescopes that scan the entire sky, which means asteroids that are misbehaving such as Gault can not escape detection anymore".

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