Never Seen Before: Watch the Disintegration of an Asteroid in Space

Never Seen Before: Watch the Disintegration of an Asteroid in Space

An unprecedented event: The Hubble Space Telescope has just recorded one of the strangest events that it has ever seen in its 24 year history: an asteroid disintegrating in real-time.

The object was first spotted from on-the-ground observatories in Hawaii on Sept. 15, 2013 when astronomers saw three mysterious, fuzzy objects travelling through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The objects' movement was so strange that the scientists asked Hubble, orbiting in space and above the haze of the atmosphere, to have a more detailed look. The images captured were astounding.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA

The picture showed an asteroid that was in the midst of spontaneously breaking up. Observation of a crumbling asteroid is an unprecedented event. Rocky asteroids rarely crumble because they are made of much sterner stuff than comets, which are balls of ice and dust and easily fragment when they approach the sun.

What's even more quizzical is that the fragments drifted apart at such a slow rate — less than one mile per hour — which means thedisintegration probably wasn't the result of a violent collision, but something much more subtle.

Because asteroids have irregular surfaces, sunlight can heat them unevenly and throw their rotation off balance, turning it turn faster and faster until these forces tear the asteroid apart. This bizarre phenomena is called the "YORP effect" and has long been predicted by astronomers, but never observed before. "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," NASA said, in the statement. The remnants — weighing around 200,000 tons — will probably all eventually plunge into the sun.

Another asteroid comes close: Earlier this week another asteroid on its long journey around the sun came within the moon's orbit around Earth. The rock was estimated around 100 feet in diameter and came as close as 217,000 miles from our planet's surface, whizzing by at a speed of 33,000 miles an hour. Viewers were able to watch this event live from the comfort of their bedrooms via the virtual telescope project.

Image Credit: Virtual Telescope

Within hours a second, smaller asteroid, sized at 33 feet in diameter, came even closer — within one fifth of the lunar orbit! The asteroid was about half the size of the one that dramatically exploded in Russia in 2013.

Close shaves? These strange occurrences perfectlydemonstrate what a busy neighborhood of the solar system we live in, with many chunks of sizable rock constantly hurtling past our tranquil home. We shouldn't be too nervous though, as these are rare events — a small Russian-sized 80 foot asteroid hit' us every 50 years or so — but we should probably be vigilant and keep our eyes peeled to the sky.

Image Credit: Virtual Telescope 

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Lucky Tran

Lucky Tran is a scientist with a PhD in molecular biology from Cambridge, who has worked at the intersection of science research, policy and education in the US, UK and Australia. As a science media maker, he is interested in how science and technology is rapidly changing how we live, as well as the story of growing participation: citizen science, maker movement, and open science. Get in touch at info [a] luckytran.com.

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