London, Oct 14 (ANI): The first snapshots of a suspected asteroid collision have been captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
The images show a bizarre X-shaped object at the head of a comet-like trail of material.
In January, astronomers began using Hubble to track the object for five months. They thought they had witnessed a fresh asteroid collision, but were surprised to learn the collision occurred in early 2009.
"We expected the debris field to expand dramatically, like shrapnel flying from a hand grenade," said astronomer David Jewitt of the University of California in Los Angeles, who is a leader of the Hubble observations.
"But what happened was quite the opposite. We found that the object is expanding very, very slowly."
The peculiar object, dubbed P/2010 A2, was found cruising around the asteroid belt, a reservoir of millions of rocky bodies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It is estimated modest-sized asteroids smash into each other about once a year. When the objects collide, they inject dust into interplanetary space. But until now, astronomers have relied on models to make predictions about the frequency of these collisions and the amount of dust produced.
Catching colliding asteroids is difficult because large impacts are rare while small ones, such as the one that produced P/2010 A2, are exceedingly faint. The two asteroids that make up P/2010 A2 were unknown before the collision because they were too faint to be noticed. The collision itself was unobservable because of the asteroids' position in relation to the sun.
About 10 or 11 months later, in January 2010, the Lincoln Near-Earth Research (LINEAR) Program Sky Survey spotted the comet-like tail produced by the collision. But only Hubble discerned the X pattern, offering unequivocal evidence that something stranger than a comet outgassing had occurred.
Although the Hubble images give compelling evidence for an asteroid collision, Jewitt says he still does not have enough information to rule out other explanations for the peculiar object. In one such scenario, a small asteroid's rotation increases from solar radiation and loses mass, forming the comet-like tail.
"These observations are important because we need to know where the dust in the solar system comes from, and how much of it comes from colliding asteroids as opposed to 'outgassing' comets," Jewitt said.
"We also can apply this knowledge to the dusty debris disks around other stars, because these are thought to be produced by collisions between unseen bodies in the disks. Knowing how the dust was produced will yield clues about those invisible bodies."
The science journal Nature will published the findings in the Oct. 14 issue. (ANI)