Astronomers viewing our solar system's asteroid belt with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have seen for the first time an asteroid with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it like spokes on a wheel. Unlike all other known asteroids, which appear simply as tiny points of light, this asteroid, designated P/2013 P5, resembles a rotating lawn sprinkler. Astronomers are puzzled over the asteroid's unusual appearance.
P/2013 P5 has been ejecting dust periodically for at least five months. Astronomers believe it is possible the asteroid's rotation rate increased to the point where its surface started flying apart. They do not believe the tails are the result of an impact with another asteroid because they have not seen a large quantity of dust blasted into space all at once.
Scientists using the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii announced their discovery of the asteroid Aug. 27. P/2013 P5 appeared as an unusually fuzzy-looking object. The multiple tails were discovered when Hubble was used to take a more detailed image Sept. 10.
When Hubble looked at the asteroid again Sept. 23, its appearance had totally changed. It looked as if the entire structure had swung around. Astronomers will continue observing P/2013 P5 to see whether the dust leaves the asteroid in the equatorial plane. If it does, this would be strong evidence for a rotational breakup. Astronomers will also try to measure the asteroid's true spin rate.
Read the full story on NASA's website.