Hubble Watches Spun-up Asteroid Coming Apart
Astronomers once thought asteroids were boring, wayward space rocks that simply orbit around the Sun. These objects were dramatically presented only in science fiction movies.
But recent observations show that asteroids are anything but dull. In reality they are dynamic, active worlds that can ultimately disintegrate due to the long-term subtle effects of sunlight, which can slowly spin them up until they begin to shed material.
Several telescopes, including NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, have caught the gradual self-destruction of the asteroid (6478) Gault. Images from Hubble show two narrow, comet-like tails of dusty debris streaming from the diminutive asteroid.
For Gault, a mass of rubble a few miles across, mere sunlight set the stage for its gradual demise. The force of sunlight, in concert with Gault's own asymmetrical shape, speeded up the asteroid's rotation over a period of more than 100 million years. The estimated spin-up rate is 1 second every 10,000 years.
Today, the asteroid is rotating once every two hours, a speed so fast that it can no longer hold its surface material. The slightest disturbance — perhaps the impact of a pebble, or just a failure of the stressed material — may have set off a collapse. The dust left the asteroid's surface in gentle, short bursts, perhaps due to landslides lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The particles are drifting away from Gault's surface at the speed of a strolling human. The gentle process is like scattering flour into the air, where wind — or sunlight, in the case of Gault — stretches the debris into a long streamer.
Astronomers will monitor the asteroid for future events. About 800,000 known asteroids reside between Mars and Jupiter, and they may fly apart at the rate of roughly one per year.
A small asteroid has been caught in the process of spinning so fast it's throwing off material, according to new data from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and other observatories.
Images from Hubble show two narrow, comet-like tails of dusty debris streaming from the asteroid (6478) Gault. Each tail represents an episode in which the asteroid gently shed its material — key evidence that Gault is beginning to come apart.
Discovered in 1988, the 2.5-mile-wide (4-kilometer-wide) asteroid has been observed repeatedly, but the debris tails are the first evidence of disintegration. Gault is located 214 million miles (344 million kilometers) from the Sun. Of the roughly 800,000 known asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, astronomers estimate that this type of event in the asteroid belt is rare, occurring roughly once a year.
Watching an asteroid become unglued gives astronomers the opportunity to study the makeup of these space rocks without sending a spacecraft to sample them.
"We didn’t have to go to Gault," explained Olivier Hainaut of the European Southern Observatory in Germany, a member of the Gault observing team. "We just had to look at the image of the streamers, and we can see all of the dust grains well-sorted by size. All the large grains (about the size of sand particles) are close to the object and the smallest grains (about the size of flour grains) are the farthest away because they are being pushed fastest by pressure from sunlight."
Gault is only the second asteroid whose disintegration has been conclusively linked to a process known as a YORP effect. When sunlight heats an asteroid, infrared radiation escaping from its warmed surface carries off momentum as well as heat. This process creates a tiny torque that can cause the asteroid to continually spin faster. When the resulting centrifugal force starts to overcome gravity, the asteroid's surface becomes unstable, and landslides may send dust and rubble drifting into space at a couple miles per hour, or the speed of a strolling human. The researchers estimate that Gault could have been slowly spinning up for more than 100 million years.
Piecing together Gault's recent activity is an astronomical forensics investigation involving telescopes and astronomers around the world. All-sky surveys, ground-based telescopes, and space-based facilities like the Hubble Space Telescope pooled their efforts to make this discovery possible.
The initial clue was the fortuitous detection of the first debris tail, observed on Jan. 5, 2019, by the NASA-funded Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) telescope in Hawaii. The tail also turned up in archival data from December 2018 from ATLAS and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS) telescopes in Hawaii. In mid-January, a second shorter tail was spied by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii and the Isaac Newton Telescope in Spain, as well as by other observers. An analysis of both tails suggests the two dust releases occurred around Oct. 28 and Dec. 30, 2018.
Follow-up observations with the William Herschel Telescope and European Space Agency's Optical Ground Station in La Palma and Tenerife, Spain, and the Himalayan Chandra Telescope in India, measured a two-hour rotation period for the object, close to the critical speed at which a loose "rubble-pile" asteroid begins to break up.
"Gault is the best 'smoking-gun' example of a fast rotator right at the two-hour limit," said team member Jan Kleyna of the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
An analysis of the asteroid's surrounding environment by Hubble revealed no signs of more widely distributed debris, which rules out the possibility of a collision with another asteroid causing the outbursts.
The asteroid's narrow streamers suggest that the dust was released in short bursts, lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days. These sudden events puffed away enough debris to make a "dirt ball" approximately 500 feet (150 meters) across if compacted together. The tails will begin fading away in a few months as the dust disperses into interplanetary space.
Based on observations by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the astronomers estimate that the longer tail stretches over half a million miles (800,000 kilometers) and is roughly 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) wide. The shorter tail is about a quarter as long.
Only a couple of dozen active asteroids have been found so far. Astronomers may now have the capability to detect many more of them because of the enhanced survey capabilities of observatories such as Pan-STARRS and ATLAS, which scan the entire sky. "Asteroids such as Gault cannot escape detection anymore," Hainaut said. "That means that all these asteroids that start misbehaving get caught."
The researchers hope to monitor Gault for more dust events.
The team's results have been accepted for publication by The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The international team of astronomers in this study are: Jan Kleyna (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, Honolulu, Hawaii), Olivier Hainaut (European Southern Observatory, Germany), Karen Meech (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, Honolulu, Hawaii), Henry Hsieh (Planetary Science Institute, Honolulu, Hawaii; and Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Taipei, Taiwan), Alan Fitzsimmons (Queen's University Belfast Astrophysics Research Centre, Belfast, United Kingdom), Marco Micheli (European Space Agency Near Earth Object Coordination Centre, Rome, Italy; and National Institute for Astrophysics — Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, Italy), Jacqueline Keane, Larry Denneau, John Tonry, and Aren Heinze (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, Honolulu, Hawaii), Bhuwan Bhatt and Devendra Sahu (Indian Institute for Astrophysics, Bangalore, India), Detlef Koschny (European Space Agency European Space Research and Technology Centre, Noordwijk, The Netherlands; Near Earth Object Coordination Centre, Rome, Italy; and Technical University of Munich, Munich, Germany), Ken Smith (Queen's University Belfast Astrophysics Research Centre, Belfast, United Kingdom), and Harald Ebeling, Robert Weryk, Heather Flewelling, and Richard Wainscoat (University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, Honolulu, Hawaii).
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy in Washington, D.C.