The universe throws a curveball…
Scientists have discovered something very peculiar: a binary asteroid that’s also doubling as a comet.
The Hubble Space Telescope is revealing new details about this never-seen-before discovery. In 2006, Spacewatch unveiled an asteroid named 300163, and astronomers using the Pan-STARRS telescope picked up on some comet-esque activity from the object in 2011, so it was also given a comet designation of 288P.
But now things have changed once again. As the object made its closest approach to the sun last year, a German-led team of scientists using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope revealed that there are in fact two asteroids, meaning a binary system.
These two objects are almost identical in size and mass, and are orbiting each other at a distance of 60 miles. The asteroids both have a coma – a bright halo of ejected material – and are creating a long tail of dust, characteristic of a comet.
Scientists have said it is the first known binary asteroid that’s also considered a main asteroid belt comet. ‘We detected strong indications for the sublimation [immediate conversion of a solid into a gas] of water ice due to the increased solar heating—similar to how the tail of a comet is created,’ noted Jessica Agarwal, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research.
Agarwal’s team suggests the objects formed as a binary 5,000 years ago, which in universal space and time, is nothing. According to the scientists’ findings, it used to be a single object, but it started spinning so rapidly that it split and became two.