CAPE, CANAVERAL FLORIDA – A strange asteroid that appears to have multiple rotating tails has been spotted with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope between Mars and Jupiter, astronomers said Thursday.
Instead of appearing as a small point of light, like most asteroids, this one has half a dozen cometlike dust tails radiating out like spokes on a wheel, said the report in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid,” said lead investigator David Jewitt, a professor in the Department of Earth and Space Sciences of the University of California, Los Angeles. “We were dumbfounded when we saw it.
“Amazingly, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust,” he added.
The object has been named P/2013 P5, and astronomers believe it has been spewing dust for at least five months.
The asteroid may have started spinning so fast that it began to disintegrate, scientists say.
They don’t think the tails are a result of an impact, because that would cause dust to spray out all at once.
Scientists using the Pan-STARRS telescope in Hawaii spotted the asteroid in August. Its multiple tails were then discovered in images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope on Sept. 10.
Jewitt said the object may have come from an asteroid collision some 200 million years ago. Its pattern of dispersing dust in fits and bursts may be how it slowly dies.
“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.”