Science/Tech

Disintegrating Asteroid Captured By NASA’s Hubble Telescope [PHOTO]

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has helped researchers observe a rare event in space where an asteroid appears “misbehaving” and entering a self-destruction mode. 

Hubble along with ground-based instruments in Hawaii, Spain and India provided data and images on how the 2.5 mile-wide rock, named Gault, was releasing two long, narrow tails as it traveled across the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Space.com reported.

Gault was found doing a rapid rotation every two hours, at a speed that allowed the asteroid to spew the long debris tails, according to the study that is to be published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Researchers said one of Gault’s tails measured nearly 500,000 miles long by 3,000 miles wide, while the other spanned about 125,000 miles. 

"Gault is the best 'smoking-gun' example of a fast rotator right at the 2-hour limit," Jan Kleyna, a researcher from the University of Hawaii, said in a statement. "It could have been on the brink of instability for 10 million years. Even a tiny disturbance, like a small impact from a pebble, might have triggered the recent outbursts."

The study’s co-author Olivier Hainaut, from the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany, described the asteroid’s activity as a rare kind of self-destruction.

The researchers said Gault’s high speed spin occurred as the asteroid was re-radiating solar energy as heat in an asymmetric fashion for eons. The activity then created a tiny torque that has caused Gault to rotate one second faster every 10,000 years.

The same process, called the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect, also caused the ultrafast spin-up of Bennu, the near-Earth asteroid that NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is currently studying up close. 

Bennu remains active today and has been making dozens of particle-ejection events since it arrived in orbit in 2018.

Hainaut expects to get more data on active asteroids in the solar system through existing and emerging space telescopes.

"Active and unstable asteroids such as Gault are just now being detected because of new survey telescopes that scan the entire sky, which means asteroids that are misbehaving such as Gault cannot escape detection anymore," the researcher said. 

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