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Published:March 19th, 2014 15:02 EST

Astronomers Observe Rare Asteroid Break-Up

By Derek Sanders

NASA has recently released a series of images recorded from their Hubble Space Telescope showing the break-up of an asteroid located about 300 million miles from the sun into as many as ten smaller pieces, something never before seen from the agency. While comets have been seen falling apart as they near the sun, as they are made of ice and dust, the same happening to an asteroid, made of solid rock, has never been observed before.
The asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first observed, though not clearly, on September 15, 2013 by the Catalina and Pan STARRS sky surveys. A follow-up observation was held on October 1 from the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, where three bodies were shown moving together in an envelope of dust almost the diameter of Earth.
"The Keck Observatory showed us this thing was worth looking at with Hubble," said David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles, who led the astronomical forensics investigation. "With its superior resolution, space telescope observations soon showed there were really 10 embedded objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 400 yards in diameter, about four times the length of a football field."
Data from the Hubble showed the fragments drifting away from each other at one mph. The asteroid started to come apart in early 2013 and new pieces have revealed itself as time progressed. Scientists think it is unlikely the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid, as the breaking apart is too gradual for such a violent event. Some believe it is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight, which would cause the rotation rate of the asteroid to gradually increase and allow parts of it to gently pull apart from each other due to the centrifugal force. It is believed that numerous non-destructive collisions with other asteroids could have weakened the core, leading to this outcome.
With this and the recent discovery of an active asteroid with six tails, astronomers now have more evidence for the theory that the pressure of sunlight may be the primary force for small asteroids in our solar system disintegrating. While most of the debris will eventually fly into the sun, some of it may one day come down to Earth as meteors.
"This is a rock, and seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," Jewitt said.