Pikes Peak Pebble Pups

Pikes Peak Pebble Pups

Sunday, April 13, 2014

NASA's Hubble Telescope Witnesses Asteroid's Mysterious Disintegration

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the never-before-seen break-up of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces. Fragile comets, comprised of ice and dust, have been seen falling apart as they near the sun, but nothing like this has ever before been observed in the asteroid belt."This is a rock, and seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing," said David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles, who led the astronomical forensics investigation.

Credit NASA image. Public domain,

The crumbling asteroid, designated P/2013 R3, was first noticed as an unusual, fuzzy-looking object by the Catalina and Pan STARRS sky surveys on Sept. 15, 2013. A follow-up observation on October 1 with the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii, revealed three bodies moving together in an envelope of dust nearly the diameter of Earth.

"The Keck Observatory showed us this thing was worth looking at with Hubble," Jewitt said. "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." Hubble data showed the fragments drifting away from each other at a leisurely one mph.  The asteroid began coming apart early last year, but new pieces continue to reveal themselves, as proved in the most recent images. It is unlikely the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid, which would have been instantaneous and violent by comparison to what has been observed. Debris from such a high-velocity smashup would also be expected to travel much faster than observed. Nor is the asteroid coming unglued due to the pressure of interior ices warming and vaporizing.

This leaves a scenario in which the asteroid is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight, which causes the rotation rate of the asteroid to gradually increase. Eventually, its component pieces -- like grapes on a stem -- succumb to centrifugal force and gently pull apart. The possibility of disruption in this manner has been discussed by scientists for several years, but never reliably observed.

Welcome! This is the gateway to adventure and discovery

Through this blog pebble pups and junior members of the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society can access their lessons, work on assignments and projects, and receive details about field trips in the Pikes Peak Region. This Internet program is also suitable for young people who are interested in Earth science but do not live near a rock club or gem and mineral society or for young people anywhere who want a deeper dive into these topics. The only requirement is that all participants must be members of the Colorado Springs Mineralogical Society and must fill out the CSMS membership form (under important websites) and send their registration and membership fee in. Steven Veatch is the senior instructor and will need an email from you with your name, address, phone number, and permission from your parents to participate in this program.