Nasa's Hubble spots unique binary asteroid with comet-like features

Rodiano Bonacci
Settembre 21, 2017

After the Pan-STARRS observations it was also given a comet designation of 288P.

The asteroids are orbiting each other and look a lot like comets, with a halo of material called a coma surrounding them and a tail of dust trailing behind, according to the space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Due to its unusual nature, the researchers now seek to investigate just how common these systems may be in the asteroid belt.

Hubble was used to image the asteroid, designated 300163 (2006 VW139), in September 2016 just before the asteroid made its closest approach to the Sun.

"Hubble's crisp images revealed that it was actually not one, but two asteroids of nearly the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of 60 miles", NASA said.

Scientists say asteroid 300163 (2006 VW139), discovered in the solar system's asteroid belt, is actually 2 asteroids orbiting each other.

But the observations also revealed ongoing activity in the binary system.

"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", said team member Dr. Jessica Agarwal, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany.

According to the experts, it's now the first known asteroid pair that can also be classified as a main-belt comet.

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, an worldwide team of astronomers has found that an unusual object in the asteroid belt is, in fact, two asteroids orbiting each other that have comet-like features. Initially, the tail was pointing towards the direction where comparatively large dust particles (about 1 millimetre in size) were emitted in late July.

"Understanding its origin and evolution may provide new insights into the early days of the solar system", NASA said. Among the questions main-belt comets can help to answer is how water came to Earth.

Since only a few objects of this type are known, 288P/300163 presents itself as an extremely important system for future studies.

The various features of 288P-wide separation of the two components, near-equal component size, high eccentricity and comet-like activity-also make it unique among the few known wide asteroid binaries in the Solar System.

She also noted how the observed activity of 288P also reveals information about its past.

This artist's impression shows the binary main-belt comet 288P.

According to the team, the pair has likely existed as a binary system for roughly 5,000 years, after breaking up as a result of fast rotation.

The fact that 288P/300163 is so different from all other known binary asteroids raises some questions about whether it is not just a coincidence that it presents such unique properties.

"We need more theoretical and observational work, as well as more objects similar to this object, to find an answer to this question", said Agarwal.

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