Impact On Asteroid Scheila?

(Left to right): images of (596) Scheila corresponding to 2010 December 13, 14, 17, and 29. The upper row corresponds to the observations, while the lower row to the models. The tails clearly show a bifid pattern with a central spike in the sunward direction, although it is not detectable in the December 29 image. Except for this latter case, the modeled images are rendered using the same color code for the intensities as the corresponding observed images in the top row. Credit: Fernando Moreno


On December 12, 2010, something very unusual happened to asteroid Scheila. For a short period of time, its appearance changed dramatically and it even developed a comet-like tail. Now a group of international scientists headed by Fernando Moreno of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía in Granada, Spain have created a computer model which may explain this weird activity… an impact.

In results revealed October 7th in Nantes, France at the joint meeting of the European Planetary Science Congress and the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences, the team explained their theory of how this innocent asteroid may have been crashed into by a smaller object. Moreno and his team plotted the brightness curve of Scheila’s newly developed “tail” – watching how it declined over a period of weeks. Their conclusion was that Scheila was either responsible for bumping into an uncatalogued object – or the object bumped into it causing a debris trail.

“The model we used involves a very large number of particles ejected from Scheila.” explains Moreno. “We took into account gravity from the Sun, pressure radiation on the ejected particles, and Scheila´s gravity, which has a strong effect on the particles in its vicinity owing to its large mass.”

Just when did this crash occur? The first indications placed the “asteroid accident” at a period of somewhere between November 11 and December 3, 2010. But, thanks to refined studies the team has placed the smash-up to on – or within – three days of November 27, 2010. With a size of about 110 kilometers across, Scheila isn’t very large and the impactor was estimated to be anywhere from 60 to 180 meters in diameter. That’s quite enough to send visible pieces flying into space!

“We applied a scaling law that uses impact velocity to indicate the mass of the impactor and ejected material.” concludes Moreno. “We know the impact should be about 5 kilometres per second because that’s the average velocity of asteroids in the Main Belt. Using this number we predicted both the ejection velocity of the particles (50 to 80 meters per second) and the size of the impactor.”

As for asteroid Scheila, she’s also a step off the beaten path, too. It belongs to a class known Main-Belt Comets – objects which have orbital characteristics of Main-Belt Asteroids – but sometimes behave like a comet. The reason why they have outbursts still isn’t clear. While these new modeling techniques may lend credence to the impact theory, there’s also a strong possibility of gaseous emissions. However, astronomers from the University of Maryland and Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii have ruled out venting in Scheila’s case.

Original Story Source: EuroPlanet News.

Hit and Run Asteroid Caused Scheila’s Comet-like Behavior

Faint dust plumes bookend asteroid (596) Scheila, which is overexposed in this composite. Visible and ultraviolet images from Swift's UVOT (circled) are merged with a Digital Sky Survey image of the same region. The UVOT images were acquired on Dec. 15, 2010, when the asteroid was about 232 million miles from Earth. Credit: NASA/Swift/DSS/D. Bodewits (UMD)

Asteroid or comet? That was the question astronomers were asking after an asteroid named Scheila had unexpectedly brightened, and seemingly sprouted a tail and coma. But follow-up observations by the Swift satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope show that these changes likely occurred after Scheila was struck by a much smaller asteroid.

“Collisions between asteroids create rock fragments, from fine dust to huge boulders, that impact planets and their moons,” said Dennis Bodewits, an astronomer at the University of Maryland in College Park and lead author of the Swift study. “Yet this is the first time we’ve been able to catch one just weeks after the smash-up, long before the evidence fades away.”


On Dec. 11, 2010, images from the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, a project of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program, revealed the Scheila to be twice as bright as expected and immersed in a faint comet-like glow. Looking through the survey’s archived images, astronomers inferred the outburst began between Nov. 11 and Dec. 3.

Three days after the outburst was announced, Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) captured multiple images and a spectrum of the asteroid. Ultraviolet sunlight breaks up the gas molecules surrounding comets; water, for example, is transformed into hydroxyl (OH) and hydrogen (H). But none of the emissions most commonly identified in comets — such as hydroxyl or cyanogen (CN) — showed up in the UVOT spectrum. The absence of gas around Scheila led the Swift team to reject the idea that Scheila was actually a comet and that exposed ice accounted for the brightening.

Hubble observed the asteroid’s fading dust cloud on Dec. 27, 2010, and Jan. 4, 2011. Images show the asteroid was flanked in the north by a bright dust plume and in the south by a fainter one. The dual plumes formed as small dust particles excavated by the impact were pushed away from the asteroid by sunlight.

The science teams from the two space observatories found the observations were best explained by a collision with a small asteroid impacting Scheila’s surface at an angle of less than 30 degrees, leaving a crater 1,000 feet across. Laboratory experiments show a more direct strike probably wouldn’t have produced two distinct dust plumes. The researchers estimated the crash ejected more than 660,000 tons of dust–equivalent to nearly twice the mass of the Empire State Building.

The Hubble Space Telescope imaged (596) Scheila on Dec. 27, 2010, when the asteroid was about 218 million miles away. Scheila is overexposed in this image to reveal the faint dust features. The asteroid is surrounded by a C-shaped cloud of particles and displays a linear dust tail in this visible-light picture acquired by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Because Hubble tracked the asteroid during the exposure, the star images are trailed. Credit: NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA)

“The Hubble data are most simply explained by the impact, at 11,000 mph, of a previously unknown asteroid about 100 feet in diameter,” said Hubble team leader David Jewitt at the University of California in Los Angeles. Hubble did not see any discrete collision fragments, unlike its 2009 observations of P/2010 A2, the first identified asteroid collision.

Scheila is approximately 113 km (70 miles) across and orbits the sun every five years.

“The dust cloud around Scheila could be 10,000 times as massive as the one ejected from comet 9P/Tempel 1 during NASA’s UMD-led Deep Impact mission,” said co-author Michael Kelley, also at the University of Maryland. “Collisions allow us to peek inside comets and asteroids. Ejecta kicked up by Deep Impact contained lots of ice, and the absence of ice in Scheila’s interior shows that it’s entirely unlike comets.”

The studies will appear in the May 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Source: NASA Goddard