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Asteroid disintegrates: Hubble photos capture 'bizarre' break-up of asteroid

An asteroid going through the process of disintegration, literally breaking apart of its own accord, has been observed for the first time, it was announced this week. Using the Hubble Telescope, CBC News reported March 7, scientists during a telephone interview said they were able to watch and photograph the asteroid as it broke up into at least ten separate pieces.

"After looking at the asteroid belt for a couple of hundred years — the first one was discovered in 1801 — to find a new thing like this is really exciting," lead researcher David Jewitt, a UCLA astronomer, stated.

The Verge noted that scientists first noticed the asteroid, named P/2013 R3, in September. One of the millions of asteroids in the Asteroid Belt located between Mars and Jupiter, the asteroid was again picked up by the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and seen to be in three distinct parts. Training the Hubble Telescope on the asteroid, observers saw "ten distinct objects, each with comet-like dust tails."

And it was those cometary dust trails and the relative speed of the fragments -- 1.5 mph -- that convinced scientists that the asteroid wasn't breaking up due to a violent collision of some sort, nor was it a victim of an internal fractionation from warming ice and escaping water and gases. With the former, the pieces would most likely be more scattered, the fragments not all having the same relative speed. With the latter, P/2013 R3 is simply too far from the sun for light to produce enough heat for the break-up.

They believe the asteroid disintegration is the first actual visual proof of the YORP Effect.

The YORP (Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack) Effect is the phenomenon of the absorption of photons into a body and the reradiation of the heat energy gained. The absorption and reradiating cause a push-and-recoil effect that increases the spin of the body taking in the sunlight. It is this effect that has helped explain the formation of so many asteroids, given that most asteroids aren't solid bodies at all but bodies made up of various pieces of rubble. The clumped feature, once an asteroid gained enough momentum via the YORP Effect, would ensure that the asteroid disintegrate.

The observations were published in the scientific publication Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"This is a really bizarre thing to observe — we've never seen anything like it before," Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany. "The break-up could have many different causes, but the Hubble observations are detailed enough that we can actually pinpoint the process responsible."

Although the first asteroid may have been discovered in 1801, the space rocks would go virtually unnoticed for almost 200 years before Hollywood movies and a few near-miss fly-bys from a few Near Earth Objects that could have done some sizable damage to the Earth had they been on a different trajectory brought the small planetoids to the forefront of public's attention. The Russian meteor that lit up the Chelyabinsk sky last February, an asteroid that came undetected from the direction of the sun, luckily never made planetfall before disintegrating and seemed to be a wake up call to politicians and the general public that asteroids. And just this past week, two small asteroids, both discovered within days of the their passage, flew by the Earth inside the Moon's orbit.

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