“Oddball” Asteroid is Really a Comet

Spitzer image of an asteroid's surprise coma and tail (NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR/NAU)

It’s a case of mistaken identity: a near-Earth asteroid with a peculiar orbit turns out not to be an asteroid at all, but a comet… and not some Sun-dried burnt-out briquette either but an actual active comet containing rock and dust as well as CO2 and water ice. The discovery not only realizes the true nature of one particular NEO but could also shed new light on the origins of water here on Earth.

JPL Near-Earth Object database map of 3552 Don Quixote's orbit
JPL Near-Earth Object database map of 3552 Don Quixote’s orbit

Designated 3552 Don Quixote, the 19-km-wide object is the third largest near-Earth object — mostly rocky asteroids that orbit the Sun in the vicinity of Earth.

According to the IAU, an asteroid is coined a near-Earth object (NEO) when its trajectory brings it within 1.3 AU from the Sun and within 0.3 AU of Earth’s orbit.

About 5 percent of near-Earth asteroids are thought to actually be dead comets. Today an international team including Joshua Emery, assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of Tennessee, have announced that Don Quixote is neither.

an asteroid is coined a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) when its trajectory brings it within 1.3 AU from the Sun and  hence within 0.3 AU of the Earth's orbit.
An asteroid is coined a near-Earth object (NEO) when its trajectory brings it within 1.3 AU from the Sun and within 0.3 AU of Earth’s orbit. (IAU)

“Don Quixote has always been recognized as an oddball,” said Emery. “Its orbit brings it close to Earth, but also takes it way out past Jupiter. Such a vast orbit is similar to a comet’s, not an asteroid’s, which tend to be more circular — so people thought it was one that had shed all its ice deposits.”

Read more: 3552 Don Quixote… Leaving Our Solar System?

Using the NASA/JPL Spitzer Space Telescope, the team — led by Michael Mommert of Northern Arizona University — reexamined images of Don Quixote from 2009 when it was at perihelion and found it had a coma and a faint tail.

Emery also reexamined images from 2004, when Quixote was at its farthest distance from the Sun, and determined that the surface is composed of silicate dust, which is similar to comet dust. He also determined that Don Quixote did not have a coma or tail at this distance, which is common for comets because they need the sun’s radiation to form the coma and the sun’s charged particles to form the tail.

The researchers also confirmed Don Quixote’s size and the low, comet-like reflectivity of its surface.

“The power of the Spitzer telescope allowed us to spot the coma and tail, which was not possible using optical telescopes on the ground,” said Emery. “We now think this body contains a lot of ice, including carbon dioxide and/or carbon monoxide ice, rather than just being rocky.”

This discovery implies that carbon dioxide and water ice might be present within other near-Earth asteroids and may also have implications for the origins of water on Earth, as comets are thought to be the source of at least some of it.

The amount of water on Don Quixote is estimated to be about 100 billion tons — roughly the same amount in Lake Tahoe.

“Our observations clearly show the presence of a coma and a tail which we identify as molecular line emission from CO2 and thermal emission from dust. Our discovery indicates that more NEOs may harbor volatiles than previously expected.”

– Mommert et al., “Cometary Activity in Near–Earth Asteroid (3552) Don Quixote “

The findings were presented Sept. 10 at the European Planetary Science Congress 2013 in London.

Source: University of Tennessee press release


3552 Quixote isn’t the only asteroid found to exhibit comet-like behavior either — check out Elizabeth Howell’s recent article, “Asteroid vs. Comet: What the Heck is 3200 Phaethon?” for a look at another NEA with cometary aspirations.

The Moon’s Water Comes From the Sun

An image of debris, ejected from Cabeus crater and into the sunlight, about 20 seconds after the LCROSS impact. The inset shows a close-up with the direction of the sun and the Earth. Image courtesy of Science/AAAS

An image of water-filled debris ejected from Cabeus crater about 20 seconds after the 2009 LCROSS impact. Courtesy of Science/AAAS.

Comets? Asteroids? The Earth? The origins of water now known to exist within the Moon’s soil — thanks to recent observations by various lunar satellites and the impact of the LCROSS mission’s Centaur rocket in 2009 — has been an ongoing puzzle for scientists. Now, new research supports that the source of at least some of the Moon’s water is the Sun, with the answer blowing in the solar wind.

Spectroscopy research conducted on Apollo samples by a team from the University of Tennessee, University of Michigan and Caltech has revealed “significant amounts” of hydroxyl within microscopic glass particles found inside lunar soil, the results of micrometeorite impacts.

According to the research team, the hydroxyl “water” within the lunar glass was likely created by interactions with protons and hydrogen ions from the solar wind.

“We found that the ‘water’ component, the hydroxyl, in the lunar regolith is mostly from solar wind implantation of protons, which locally combined with oxygen to form hydroxyls that moved into the interior of glasses by impact melting,” said Youxue Zhang, Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan.

Hydroxyl is the pairing of a single oxygen atom to a single hydrogen atom (OH). Each molecule of water contains two hydroxyl groups.

Although such glass particles are widespread on the surface of the Moon — the researchers studied samples returned from Apollo 11, Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 missions — the water in hydroxyl form is not something that could be easily used by future lunar explorers. Still, the findings suggest that solar wind-derived hydroxyl may also exist on the surface of other airless worlds, like Mercury, Vesta or Eros… especially within permanently-shadowed craters and depressions.

“These planetary bodies have very different environments, but all have the potential to produce water,” said Yang Liu, University of Tennessee scientist and lead author of the team’s paper.

The discovery of hydroxyl within lunar glasses presents an “unanticipated, abundant reservoir” of water on the Moon, and possibly throughout the entire Solar System.

The study was published online Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Source: University of Michigan news release.

Inset image: a grain of lunar agglutinate glass from samples returned by Apollo astronauts (Yang Liu)