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March 6, 2014 10:00 AM (EST)

News Release Number: STScI-2014-15

Hubble Witnesses an Asteroid Mysteriously Disintegrating

March 6, 2014: Though fragile comet nuclei have been seen falling apart as they near the Sun, nothing like the slow breakup of an asteroid has ever before been observed in the asteroid belt. A series of Hubble Space Telescope images shows that the fragments are drifting away from each other at a leisurely one mile per hour. This makes it unlikely that the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid. A plausible explanation is that the asteroid is crumbling due to a subtle effect of sunlight. This causes the rotation rate to slowly increase until centrifugal force pulls the asteroid apart. The asteroid's remnant debris, weighing in at 200,000 tons, will in the future provide a rich source of meteoroids.

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Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles)