A recent report followed by a series of images appear to have gotten astronomers and other science enthusiasts talking, questioning and pondering recently as the Hubble Space Telescope observed an asteroid shattering into several small pieces. According to experts, this breakup mechanism, as demonstrated by asteroid P/2013 R3 is a unique occurrence in the recorded history of the asteroid belt.
UCLA’s David Jewitt, who was in charge of conducting the astronomical forensics investigation, described the event as a pretty spectacular observation as the rock fell apart while drifting through space.
The first reported observation of this particular asteroid was documented by the Catalina and Pan-STARRS sky surveys on Sept. 15, 2013. Further observations with the Keck Telescope, located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii were then reported on Oct. 1, revealing an entourage of three separate bodies moving together through space, seemingly covered by a cloud of dust about the size of Earth’s diameter.
According to Jewitt, the Keck observation confirmed that the phenomena was worth a closer examination with the notorious Hubble Telescope.
With its highly advanced resolution, the Hubble Space Telescope soon revealed a total of ten separate objects considered to be affiliated with the shattering asteroid, each of them containing a dust tail similar to comets. The largest four of these rocky fragments being close to 200 meters in radius.
The data obtained by the Hubble observation further revealed that these fragments, while moving at a slow and steady pace of 1.5 kilometers per hour, are indeed drifting apart. The asteroid has been disintegrating since early last year, but the most recent footage proves that pieces are still being discovered.
The discovery of additional fragments, which is still an ongoing process, appears to debunk any suggestion that the disintegration of this asteroid could be caused by a collision with another similar body, which would be a violent and instantaneous event in comparison to the reality of what observations have revealed. In addition, the debris that would be generated as a result of a high-velocity impact of such nature would seemingly travel a whole lot faster than research has revealed in this case, and thus, that is deemed as a highly unlikely hypothesis for a cause of this event.
A more likely hypothesis, presented by astronomers, is that an effect commonly referred to as YORP, in which faint effect of potential sunlight slowly accelerates the rotation rate over time. Eventually, these fragments of P/2013 R3 will continue to separate, as a result of centrifugal force and the debris that remains from the disintegration, a mass of approximately 200,000 tons, is expected to provide a vast amount of fuel for future meteoroids.
The notion that the asteroid may have possibly dissolved as a result of contact with sunlight might also raise some further questions about the defense mechanisms of the solar system, as it has often been suggested that the asteroid belt acts as a protective wall against larger astral bodies coming in from further out in the solar system. Some might even ponder whether this disintegration mechanism could be the back means for defense in case a collision with the asteroid belt does not stop a larger moving body, a previously unknown mechanism that the Hubble Telescope images of this shattering asteroid has now demonstrated.
By Halldor Fannar Sigurgeirsson