Suspected Asteroid Collision Leaves Odd X-Pattern of Trailing Debris

February 2, 2010
This is a NASA Hubble Space Telescope picture of a comet-like object called P/2010 A2, which was first discovered by the LINEAR (Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program) sky survey on January 6. The object appears so unusual in ground-based telescopic images that discretionary time on Hubble was used to take a close-up look. This picture, from the January 29 observation, shows a bizarre X-pattern of filamentary structures near the point-like nucleus of the object and trailing streamers of dust. The inset picture shows a complex structure that suggests the object is not a comet but instead the product of a head-on collision between two asteroids traveling five times faster than a rifle bullet (5 kilometers per second). Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (UCLA)

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a mysterious X-shaped debris pattern and trailing streamers of dust that suggest a head-on collision between two asteroids. Astronomers have long thought that the asteroid belt is being ground down through collisions, but such a smashup has never before been seen.

The comet-like object imaged by Hubble, called P/2010 A2, was first discovered by the LINEAR (Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program) on January 6. New Hubble images taken on January 25 and 29 show a complex X-pattern of filamentary structures near the nucleus.

"This is quite different from the smooth dust envelopes of normal comets," says principal investigator David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles. "The filaments are made of dust and gravel, presumably recently thrown out of the nucleus. Some are swept back by radiation pressure from sunlight to create straight dust streaks. Embedded in the filaments are co-moving blobs of dust that likely originate from tiny unseen parent bodies."

Hubble also shows that the main nucleus of P/2010 A2 lies outside its own halo of dust. This has never before been seen in a comet-like object. The nucleus is estimated to be 460 feet (140 meters) in diameter.

Normal comets fall into the inner regions of the solar system from icy reservoirs in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. As comets near the Sun and warm, ices near the surface vaporize and eject material from the solid nucleus via jets. But P/2010 A2 may have a different origin. It orbits in the warm, inner regions of the where its nearest neighbors are dry rocky bodies lacking volatile materials.

This leaves open the possibility that the complex debris tail is the result of an impact between two bodies rather than ices from a parent body simply turning into vapor. Asteroid collisions are energetic, with an average impact speed over 11,000 miles per hour (5 km/s, or five times faster than a rifle bullet).

"If this interpretation is correct, two small and previously unknown asteroids recently collided, creating a shower of debris that is being swept back into a tail from the collision site by the pressure of sunlight," says Jewitt.

The main nucleus of P/2010 A2 would be the surviving remnant of this so-called hypervelocity collision. "The filamentary appearance of P/2010 A2 is different from anything seen in Hubble images of normal comets, consistent with the action of a different process," says Jewitt. An impact origin would also be consistent with the absence of gas in spectra recorded using ground-based telescopes.

The asteroid belt itself contains abundant evidence for ancient collisions that have shattered precursor bodies into fragments. The orbit of P/2010 A2 is itself consistent with membership in the Flora asteroid family, produced by collisional shattering a few hundred million years ago. (One fragment of that ancient smashup may have struck Earth 65 million years ago, triggering a mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.) But, until now, no such asteroid-asteroid collision has been caught "in the act."

Continued observations with Hubble and an armada of ground-based telescopes may reveal the mechanisms by which natural impacts generate dust to supply the zodiacal cloud, a plane of dust in our solar system.

At the time of the Hubble observations, the object was approximately 180 million miles (300 million km) from the Sun and 90 million miles (140 million km) from Earth. The Hubble images were recorded with the new Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3).

Explore further: Evidence for more dust than ice in comets

Related Stories

Evidence for more dust than ice in comets

October 13, 2005

Observations of Comet 9P/Tempel 1 made by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft after the Deep Impact collision suggest that comets are ‘icy dirtballs’, rather than ‘dirty snowballs’ as previously believed.

Asteroid Shower

December 3, 2007

Mark your calendar: The best meteor shower of 2007 peaks on Friday, December 14th.

Hubble provides spectacular view of ongoing comet breakup

April 27, 2006

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is providing astronomers with extraordinary views of comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 as it disintegrates before our eyes. Recent Hubble images have uncovered many more fragments than have ...

The First of Many Asteroid Finds for WISE

January 25, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, has spotted its first never-before-seen near-Earth asteroid, the first of hundreds it is expected to find during its mission to map the whole sky in infrared ...

Recommended for you

Bright areas on Ceres suggest geologic activity

December 13, 2017

If you could fly aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft, the surface of dwarf planet Ceres would generally look quite dark, but with notable exceptions. These exceptions are the hundreds of bright areas that stand out in images Dawn ...

Major space mystery solved using data from student satellite

December 13, 2017

A 60-year-old mystery regarding the source of some energetic and potentially damaging particles in Earth's radiation belts is now solved using data from a shoebox-sized satellite built and operated by University of Colorado ...

Spanning disciplines in the search for life beyond Earth

December 13, 2017

The search for life beyond Earth is riding a surge of creativity and innovation. Following a gold rush of exoplanet discovery over the past two decades, it is time to tackle the next step: determining which of the known exoplanets ...

7 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jonnyboy
3 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010
Whew, that was a close one. Good thing those Aliens zigged when they should have zagged and got smashed by that asteroid.
maxcypher
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010
Its structure does look amazingly artificial in the inset picture. Watch out for the UFO frenzy feed.
yyz
5 / 5 (2) Feb 02, 2010


I thought it was ET sacrificing themselves to save the Earth from that dastardly asteroid, just like Tunguska in 1908. :-)

Seriously, I wonder what the composition of the debris cloud is, and how it compares to debris disks seen around other stars, especially sun-like stars? How long will astronomers be able to track this asteroidal dissection and will they be able to detect signs of space weathering of the debris? Will a pronounced debris stream now form' similar to those observed relating to meteor showers (i.e. similar to Phaethon)….even though we'll miss out on a new shower? Lots of questions!
NameIsNotNick
Feb 03, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
DaveD
Feb 03, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TrustTheONE
Feb 03, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
TrustTheONE
not rated yet Mar 31, 2010
It looks very much like a Cylon Basestar ship from BSG Galactiva tv series.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.