National Geographic
Menu

Weird Newfound Asteroid Sports Six Comet Tails

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals a never-before-seen set of six comet-like tails radiating from a bizzare body in the asteroid belt, designated P/2013 P5. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles), J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research), H. Weaver (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory), M. Mutchler (STScI), and S. Larson (University of Arizona)

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image reveals a never-before-seen set of six comet-like tails radiating from a bizzare body in the asteroid belt, designated P/2013 P5. Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles), J. Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research), H. Weaver (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory), M. Mutchler (STScI), and S. Larson (University of Arizona)

A newly-discovered asteroid masquerades as a bizarre comet, one that astronomers in a new study are outright calling, “weird and freakish.”

First spotted by the Hawaii-based Pan-STARRS sky survey telescope this Spring, the bizarre object caught  astronomers’ attention because of its unusually fuzzy appearance. The Hubble Space Telescope’s high-resolution cameras were trained on it in September, and that’s when they noticed it’s startling, mutant comet appearancethe asteroid sports 6 tails streaming out into space in all directions.

“It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid,” said lead author of the new study David Jewitt, a astronomer at University of California at Los Angeles in a statement.

“We were dumbfounded when we saw it. Amazingly, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust.”

This artwork shows the structures seen around an active asteroid designated P/2013 P5.  One interpretation is that the pressure of sunlight  sweeps the erupting dust into multiple long tails. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

This artwork shows the structures seen around an active asteroid designated P/2013 P5. One interpretation is that the pressure of sunlight sweeps the erupting dust into multiple long tails. Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

Astronomers think that the space rock, dubbed P/2013 P5, has had its spin rate increase significantly in the last 5 months for some yet unknown reason. The faster spin rate is causing the asteroid to eject dust in wild, episodic eruptions that lead it to resemble a rotating lawn sprinkler in the newly-released images.

According to one theory, radiation pressure bellowing out from  the sun may have caused P/2013 P5 to spin more rapidly, collecting the ejected dust into comet-like tails.

Jewitt and his team believe the comet-like asteroid may be a fragment of an ancient asteroid collision some 200 million years ago. What we are witnessing now is simply an end-of life phase common to most small, fragmented asteroids in the asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter.

Which means more such space rocks likely await discovery.

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

The comet-like asteroid find is reported online in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

 

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on Twitter and Facebook.

Comments

  1. Alex
    Florida
    November 10, 2013, 8:06 am

    Hands off! It’s mine!

  2. nathan jefferson
    November 10, 2013, 7:12 am

    Wow..aint that at odds with the laws of physics..u know..light going everywere

  3. Gary
    NC
    November 9, 2013, 7:17 pm

    Physicist please answer …if it’s spinning , why are the jets straight , not corkscrew ?

  4. aniga
    November 9, 2013, 5:58 pm

    “Weird” and “freaky” are hardly acceptable scientific words.. the other problem I have with this is that they waited 13 days to take the second picture. Take a picture everyday if not hour to gain a better perspective.

  5. Mary Porter
    United States
    November 9, 2013, 5:25 pm

    That’s Gamera.

  6. J Shinal
    Raleigh, NC
    November 9, 2013, 2:52 pm

    It seems a simple and reasonable guess is this is a comet remnant. They are postulated to have rocky or dusty cores. Imagine one similar to Encke, in an old and degraded orbit. As it vents the last of its ‘junk’ it could easily look like this.

  7. molly cruz
    United States
    November 9, 2013, 12:34 pm

    Hmmm. It’s the inner force is what goes unexplained. is it a geode in the making? is it shrinking and hardening around its fiery liquid interior and being irregular allowing blasts through holes in its armor? Or is it some piece of hardware we blasted up long ago and forgot about? I understand we’re polluting the solar system, having run out of room down here.

  8. dan rose
    Asteroid belt
    November 9, 2013, 10:30 am

    I agree with Ralph Dratman. The aliens used Damien Hurst as a consultant–or perhaps David Hockney. I’m unsure

  9. Peter W
    Ohio
    November 9, 2013, 8:43 am

    It’s time to wake up everyone. The “Man of Perdition” has arrived. See for yourself visit Amazon.com and read the following book: The Hidden Language of God a Lesson in 666.

  10. yrr
    usa
    November 8, 2013, 9:52 pm

    This time, it may be the apocalypse as the Mayans said it but with some error in predicted time. A spinning rock can penetrate more easily. Earth is seeing a spinning bullet in slow motion.

  11. ray liotta
    United States
    November 8, 2013, 8:41 pm

    Quick
    Get Bruce Willis and the crew together

  12. Dan
    Victoria, Canada
    November 8, 2013, 6:15 pm

    Borg scout ship… prepare to be assimilated!

  13. Cory
    November 8, 2013, 4:57 pm

    Nahh… you’re all wrong. It’s the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

    Either that, or it’s an asteroid that is spinning and ejecting dust.

  14. Leonard Escudero
    Arizona
    November 8, 2013, 2:28 pm

    If it’s blue, then I’m calling the Hopi Tribal Council immediately.

  15. Nick Martin
    Kalamazoo
    November 8, 2013, 2:19 pm

    Alien spaceship with adjustable thrusters!

  16. J Mullis
    Cornwall
    November 8, 2013, 12:21 pm

    Is it a starfish?

  17. Drew Rile
    Canada
    November 8, 2013, 10:17 am

    Well obviously it’s Saiken!

  18. F.Bink
    Philippines
    November 8, 2013, 9:27 am

    What I really want to know is WHO is up there mining that thing?

  19. Paul
    November 8, 2013, 9:21 am

    We don’t know what it is, therefore it’s God!!!!!

  20. Nura haruna
    November 8, 2013, 9:19 am

    I like this, but the comet is resemble with star on earth’s

  21. Curtis Drafton
    Atlanta
    November 8, 2013, 8:12 am

    Or we could be looking at an actual “UFO”.

    It sounds like these scientists are afraid to say it, so I will. ☺️

  22. jim mitchell
    Cardiff
    November 8, 2013, 7:35 am

    Come on guys! anyone can tell it is “The light at the end of the Tunnel”

  23. D.Eubanks
    North America
    November 8, 2013, 4:16 am

    These things where foretold .Read in the book of Luke 2`:25-28

  24. Ralph Dratman
    New Jersey, USA
    November 7, 2013, 11:01 pm

    The explanation proposed here sounds pretty strained to me. Pretty implausible. I have a more fun and interesting one: Here we see an artifact of an advanced intelligent civilization. We are getting a free look at one of their playthings. The object itself is a work of art, one which we Terrans can understand as a cross between deep space fireworks and a gigantic laser light show.