Freakish 6-Tailed Asteroid: Astronomers 'Dumbfounded' By Hubble Telescope Discovery

By Josh Lieberman on November 8, 2013 5:50 PM EST

6-tailed asteroid
The Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a "freakish" six-tailed asteroid, something astronomers say they've never observed before. (Photo: NASA)

Astronomers say they were "completely knocked out" in September when Hubble Space Telescope images showed a strange asteroid that resembled a rotating lawn sprinkler. The "weird and freakish" object, which was spotted in the solar system's asteroid belt, had has six comet-like tails of dust surrounding it. Astronomers have given the asteroid the catchy name "P/2013 P5" and have described the find in today's Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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"It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid," said lead investigator David Jewitt, a professor in the UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy. "We were dumbfounded when we saw it. Amazingly, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust."

The freakish asteroid was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii on August 27, when the asteroid appeared to astronomers to be some sort of fuzzy object. It wasn't until September 10, when the Hubble Space Telescope got a better look, that astronomers noticed the asteroid's many comet-like tails--a first in astronomy. 

Jewitt and his team hypothesize that the unusual asteroid is the result of "impulsive dust-ejection events," which is caused by the asteroid rotating quickly and breaking apart. The breakaway dust from the asteroid is then arranged into tails due to radiation pressure from the sun. The astronomers believe that these impulsive dust-ejection events have been happening for at least five months. 

Jewitt said that while the 1,400-foot-wide freakish asteroid seems unique, it's probably common, and this is simply the first time we've observed something like it. 

"In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more," he said. "This is an amazing object and almost certainly the first of many more to come."

READ MORE:

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