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NASA's Hubble Telescope Witnesses Asteroid's Mysterious Disintegration

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NASA's Hubble Telescope Witnesses Asteroid's Mysterious Disintegration

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2014 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- NASA's Hubble

Space Telescope has recorded the never-before-seen break-up of an

asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

Fragile comets, comprised of ice and dust, have been seen falling

apart as they near the sun, but nothing like this has ever before been

observed in the asteroid belt.

"This is a rock, and seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty

amazing," said David Jewitt of the University of California at Los

Angeles, who led the astronomical forensics investigation.

The crumbling asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first noticed as an

unusual, fuzzy-looking object by the Catalina and Pan STARRS sky

surveys on Sept. 15, 2013. A follow-up observation on October 1 with

the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant

volcano on the island of Hawaii, revealed three bodies moving together

in an envelope of dust nearly the diameter of Earth.

"The Keck Observatory showed us this thing was worth looking at with

Hubble," Jewitt said. "With its superior resolution, space telescope

observations soon showed there were really 10 embedded objects, each

with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to

400 yards in diameter, about four times the length of a football


Hubble data showed the fragments drifting away from each other at a

leisurely one mph. The asteroid began coming apart early last year,

but new pieces continue to reveal themselves, as proved in the most

recent images.

It is unlikely the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision

with another asteroid, which would have been instantaneous and violent

by comparison to what has been observed. Debris from such a

high-velocity smashup would also be expected to travel much faster

than observed. Nor is the asteroid coming unglued due to the pressure

of interior ices warming and vaporizing.

This leaves a scenario in which the asteroid is disintegrating due to

a subtle effect of sunlight, which causes the rotation rate of the

asteroid to gradually increase. Eventually, its component pieces --

like grapes on a stem -- succumb to centrifugal force and gently pull

apart. The possibility of disruption in this manner has been discussed

by scientists for several years, but never reliably observed.

For this scenario to occur, P/2013 R3 must have a weak, fractured

interior -- probably as the result of numerous non-destructive

collisions with other asteroids. Most small asteroids are thought to

have been severely damaged in this way. P/2013 R3 is likely the

byproduct of just such a collision sometime in the last billion years.

With the previous discovery of an active asteroid spouting six tails,

named P/2013 P5, astronomers are finding more evidence the pressure of

sunlight may be the primary force causing the disintegration of small

asteroids -- less than a mile across-- in our solar system.

The asteroid's remnant debris, weighing about 200,000 tons, will in

the future provide a rich source of meteoroids. Most will eventually

plunge into the sun, but a small fraction of the debris may one day

blaze across our skies as meteors.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation

between NASA and the European Space Agency. NASA's Goddard Space

Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., manages the telescope. The Space

Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore conducts Hubble

science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of

Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington.

For images and more information about Hubble, visit:

Logo -


-0- 03/06/2014

/CONTACT: J.D. Harrington, Headquarters, Washington, 202-358-5241,; Ray Villard, Space Science Telescope Institute, Baltimore, Md., 410-338-4493 / 410-338-4514,


PRN Photo Desk

/Web Site:


ST: District of Columbia




-- DC78415 --

0000 03/06/2014 17:10:00 EDT

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