Comets visit the inner Solar System, and leave without saying goodbye. Maybe they leave a trail of dust behind, and when the Earth passes through it, we get a pretty light show in the night sky, in the form of a meteor shower. Likewise, asteroids frequently go whizzing by, though they don’t leave us with a pyrotechnic display.
Sometimes these rocky interlopers head straight for Earth. And when they do, the results can be cataclysmic, like when an asteroid struck Earth about 66 million years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs and 75% of life on Earth. Other times, it’s not quite as cataclysmic, but still devastating, like in about 2350 BC, when debris from a disintegrating comet may have caused the collapse of an ancient empire.
But regardless of the severity of any of these individual events, the conclusion is crystal clear: Earth’s history is intertwined with the coming and going of space rocks. The evidence is all around us, sort of.
Alas, the image above is not marking alien pirate treasure in space – for the first time, the aftermath of a collision between two asteroids has been imaged. Last January, an international team of astronomers saw the strange X-shaped object with the Hubble Space Telescope after ground-based observatories spotted evidence of an asteroid collision in the asteroid belt. The team has now used Hubble to do follow-up observations and uncovered a few surprises about the collision.
The collision produced an X shape, followed by a long comet-like tail. The astronomers, led by David Jewitt of the University of California in Los Angeles, were surprised to find that the collision did not happen as recently as they’d thought, but had actually occurred almost a year previous to the detection. It’s likely that the two asteroids smashed together sometime in February or March of 2009.
“When I saw the Hubbble image I knew it was something special,” said ESA astronomer Jessica Agarwal in a press release.
Named P/2010 A2, the object is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Asteroid collisions are thought to be a commonplace occurrence, and are responsible for kicking up dust in our Solar System and other planetary systems. Just how much dust is produced, and how frequent the collisions happen is still a hazy topic, and the recent observation of P/2010 A2 should help astronomers to better model this phenomenon.
By figuring out how much dust is produced by the process of ‘collisional grinding’, astronomers could better model the dusty debris disks of other planetary systems, as well as our own.
The team monitored the slow-motion expansion of the leftovers of the colliding asteroids with the Hubble Space Telescope between January and May of 2010. They’ve determined that P/2010 A2 is about 120 meters (393 feet) wide, and the particles of dust that make up the tail following it are between 1 millimeter (0.04 inches) to 2.5 centimeters (1 inch) in diameter.
The remnants of the collision suggest that a smaller asteroid – 3 to 5 meters (10-16 feet) wide – collided into a larger one at about 18,000 km per hour (11,000 miles per hour). This vaporized the smaller asteroid, and ejected material from the larger one.
Why is the object X-shaped? That mystery has yet to be determined. It is likely, according to the team, that the filaments produced by the collision suggest asymmetries in the colliding objects. Further observations of P/2010 A2 with the Hubble in 2011 will show just how the collision continues to change, allowing for a more precise model of how it started out.
The observed tail is caused by the same mechanism that produces cometary tails – radiation pressure from the Sun pushes the dust away from the nucleus of the object.
As to why we don’t have thousands of Hubble images to produce a whole alphabet of asteroid collisions shapes – “Catching colliding asteroids on camera is difficult because large impacts are rare, while small ones, such as the one that produced P/2010 A2, are exceedingly faint,” Jewitt said. The results of their observations will be published in the October 14th issue of the journal Nature.