Freaky comet-like asteroid confuses scientists

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

comet-like asteroid image
The comet-like P/2013 P5 asteroid.

Back in September, astronomers used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to snap a picture of an asteroid called P/2013 P5. Then, when they took another photo just 13 days later, the scientists could not believe what they were seeing. Rather than resembling a single point of light, like all other known asteroids, P/2013 P5 had six comet-like tails rotating behind it!

“We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it,” said David Jewitt, a professor at UCLA who leads the team exploring the asteroid. He compared its tails of spinning dust to “spokes on a wheel.”

As for the asteroid itself, it’s about 1,400 feet wide and its surface temperatures likely reach 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Curiously, it’s made out of rock and ice, just like a typical comet. Even more bizarre is the fact that P/2013 P5 appears to be spewing out debris, almost like a sprinkler shoots out water.

“Its tail structures change dramatically… as it belches out dust,” said Jewitt. “That also caught us by surprise. It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid.” Because the asteroid ejected six streams of dust over the past 5 months, scientists believe it’s breaking apart from spinning so fast. So, they’re starting to think this might be the way asteroids die!

Astronomers will keep an eye on P/2013 P5 to find the root cause of this phenomenon, while searching the starry skies for more asteroids just like it. After all, as Jewitt explains, “In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more.”

Images courtesy of NASA and ESA.