Nov 07, 2013 03:05 PM EST
Strange Space Object Stumps Astronomers; Appears to be Asteroid but Has Six Comet-Like Tails (PHOTO)
Astronomers have spotted a curious comet-like spatial object with the Hubble Telescope that has six trails, causing it to look like a badminton shuttlecock, BBC News reported.
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The observers were lead to believe the object is an asteroid because it was spotted in an asteroid belt, but its tails are more characteristic of a comet. Asteroids also typically only appear as tiny dots of light.
"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," Dave Jewitt, a professor from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and lead researcher, said in a press release. "Even more amazing, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid."
One theory the scientists proposed in their study, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters, is that the asteroid's rotation rate caused pieces of it to break off. Pressure from the sun could have possibly caused the object's, dubbed P/2013 P5, weak gravity to let the space rock fall apart.
Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Lindau, Germany, said the tails could have been formed by a series of dust-ejection events. She said computer modeling suggested radiation from the sun would have created the pressure necessary to cause pieces of the asteroid to come off.
"Given our observations and modeling, we infer that P/2013 P5 might be losing dust as it rotates at high speed," said Agarwal. "The Sun then drags this dust into the distinct tails we're seeing."
Jewitt supported that theory stating if the asteroid's rotation rate was high enough, its own gravity would not be strong enough to hold its body together. Regardless of the real reason behind the perplexing object, he said he was just happy to observe the asteroid.
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"In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more," Jewitt said. "This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come."