Is it a comet or an asteroid? For scientists using the Hubble Telescope, it is described only as a “weird and freakish” object with six tails that was later identified as Asteroid P/2013 P5 with six dust trails that are reminiscent of those of comets, according to the Daily Mail newspaper.
The space object has been compared to the spokes on a bicycle wheel or a cosmic lawn sprinkler, with a solid object at its center and trails of dust radiating out from the core. According to researchers, normally asteroids appear as tiny pinpricks of light, which led to the confusion of this asteroid with a comet. Even more baffling to scientists is the fact that the tail structure has changed since the object was initially spotted.
Changes in appearance
The celestial object was first spotted in August 2013 via a telescope (the Pan-STARRS 1) in Hawaii as a fuzzy image, according to Space Daily. When images from the Hubble were first examined on Sept. 10, it appeared there were multiple tails. In Sept. 23 shots, however, the object had changed. It appeared as though the asteroid had “swung around,” according to the Daily Mail.
There also appeared to be “dust ejection events,” although scientists speculate that the change in dust (or tails) was not the result of an impact because that would have sent massive amounts of dust shooting into space at a single time. This appears more as though dust were trailing off the core center gradually. Or, in the words of the scientists, “The protracted period of dust release appears inconsistent with an impact origin, but may be compatible with a body that is losing mass through a rotational instability.” Part of that rotation may be due to the influence of the Sun, which may be exerting torque on the object.
A less likely scenario is that the dust is, in fact, ice crystals (which can survive deep within an asteroid or on the extreme edges of an asteroid belt). However, ice crystals are far more common with comets than asteroids, making the dust theory more likely.
Size, scope and possible history of the celestial object
This scientific theory would suggest that the spinning object may be weakening and falling apart, which is causing its change in appearance and the resulting trails of dust. So far, however, only a tiny amount of the object’s dust has been lost. Scientists have estimated that the core object has a 700-foot radius and may be part of the Flora asteroid family. If so, this would make this asteroid the product of a space collision that took place some 200 million years ago.
Typically, the rotational activity seen in this asteroid indicates it is part of an asteroid belt. And, according to Professor David Jewitt of the University of California-Los Angeles, the lead scientist in this case: “In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more. This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come.” As a result, this is likely only the beginning of the confounding space discovery.