Hubble Spots An Unusual Object In Our Solar System

Posted: Sep 22 2017, 1:22pm CDT | by , Updated: Sep 22 2017, 1:24pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Hubble Spots an Unusual Object in our Solar System
Artist's impression shows the binary asteroid 288P, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Credit: Credit: ESA/Hubble, L. Calçada

With the help of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers find that the unusual object is, in fact, two asteroids orbiting each other that have comet-like features

While peering into asteroid belt within our Solar System, astronomers have detected a totally unique kind of object. The unusual object is actually a pair of asteroids orbiting around each other and exhibiting comet-like features including the tail of dust and gas. It is the first known example of a binary asteroid and shows how little we know about our solar system.

“Asteroids are primitive Solar System bodies that evolve both collisionally and through disruptions arising from rapid rotation. These processes can lead to the formation of binary asteroids and to the release of dust, both directly and, in some cases, through uncovering frozen volatiles. In a subset of the asteroids called main-belt comets, the sublimation of excavated volatiles causes transient comet-like activity.” Authors wrote in the study.

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The pair of hybrid asteroid, collectively known as 288P, was originally discovered in November 2006 and is located in asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a place occupied by a number of irregularly shaped bodies or asteroids.

In September 2016, the asteroid made its closest approach to the sun, which also allowed researchers to get a detailed look at the object by using NASA/ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Observations revealed that asteroid 288P is not a single object but two asteroids of almost same mass and size. In addition, they are orbiting around each other at a distance of about 100 kilometers. The binary asteroid also showed signs of activity similar to that of a comet during its perihelion or a point in an object’s orbit when it comes closest to the sun.

"We detected strong indications of the sublimation of water ice due to the increased solar heating – similar to how the tail of a comet is created," explained lead study author Jessica Agarwal from Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. “This makes 288P the first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.”

The observations taken from Hubble telescope also revealed information about the past of the binary system. Researchers suggest that object 288P is part of a young family of asteroids that formed during a shattering collision 7.5 million years ago.

"The most probable formation scenario of 288P is a breakup due to fast rotation. After that, the two fragments may have been moved further apart by sublimation torques.” Agarwal elaborates.

Since 288P asteroid is one of the few known objects of its kind, it is an extremely important object for future studies and can help understand the origin and evolution of main-belt comets. It also raises question whether it is not just a coincidence that the twin asteroids present such unique properties

“Surface ice cannot survive in the asteroid belt for the age of the Solar System but can be protected for billions of years by a refractory dust mantle, only a few meters thick,” said Agarwal.

“We need more theoretical and observational work, as well as more objects similar to 288P, to find an answer to this question."

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