The Hubble telescope has captured some stunning images showcasing the early stages of an asteroid breaking apart. The crumbling asteroid, officially known as P/2013 R3, was first noticed in September. A follow-up observation on with the Keck Telescope located in Hawaii revealed that the “fuzzy-looking object” was actually at least three distinct parts. This convinced scientists to direct the powerful Hubble towards the asteroid. They were elated with what they saw: “ten distinct objects, each with comet-like dust tails” moving at a speed of 1.5 kilometers per hour, which the Hubble group says is about the equivalent of a leisurely walk. The four largest pieces measure up to 656 feet across.
But experts are a bit unclear as to what’s causing the asteroid to crumble. The slow speed of the objects combined with the fact that new pieces are still emerging seems to rule out a collision or impact with another asteroid. ”This is a rock,” said David Jewitt of the University of California, which spearheaded the investigation. “Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing.”
Their best guess is that the asteroid is disintegrating due to “a subtle effect of sunlight that causes the rotation rate to slowly increase over time.” This ultimately causes its pieces to pull apart thanks to centrifugal force. Scientists have never observed this phenomenon directly, so aside from their beauty, the Hubble’s images serve a scientific purpose. “This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we’ve never seen anything like it before,” said Jessica Agarwal of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.