A "freakish" asteroid that looks more like a lawn sprinkler
When NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured an image of an object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter on September 10th, astronomers back on Earth thought it looked pretty weird.
Asteroids are normally a single point of light. But this object had six dust tails.
Then, on September 23, the Hubble captured the object again. It still had six tails -- but they were oriented in a totally different direction.The whole thing was described by scientists as something that looked more like a "rotating lawn sprinkler" than a normal asteroid.
"We were completely knocked out," said lead investigator David Jewitt in a statement on Hubble's website.
Astronomers called the object "weird and freakish."
One German researcher undertook some modelling of the object and surmised that it might have begun to rotate so quickly that it started to come apart. So far, just a fraction of the total mass of the object has erupted in dust. Astronomers will continue to track the object and see if it acts the way they expect it to, confirming the rotational-breakup idea.
In fact, Jewitt said, while the object is puzzling to scientists, we might merely be witnessing the normal way asteroids die.
"In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more."
Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.