Hubble spots 'weird and freakish' object

This is a diagram of the structure seen around an active asteroid designated P/2013 P5. The Hubble Space Telescope photographed six finger-like dust tails in September 2013. One interpretation is that the asteroid's rotation rate has been increased to the point where dust is falling off the surface along the equator and escaping into space. The pressure of sunlight then sweeps the dust into long tails. and A. Feild (STScl), ESA,NASA

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope recently captured images of what astronomers are calling a "weird and freakish object." They say it looks like a rotating lawn sprinkler.

Spotted in the asteroid belt, asteroid P/2013 P5 has six "comet-like" dust tails that resemble the spokes of a wheel. This type of object has never been seen before.

"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," lead investigator David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles said in a press release.

"Even more amazing, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid."

The asteroid was discovered by the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii. Hubble spotted the multiple tails on Sept. 10.

By the time Hubble revisited it on Sept. 23, it had taken on a completely new appearance, as if the full object had swung around.

"We were completely knocked out," Jewitt said.

One hypothesis is that the asteroid started rotating so quickly that it starting ripping apart. The ejections have been happening at least five months. Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Lindau, Germany, calculated that the dust ejections took place between April 15 and Sept. 4. The dust spreads into the tail shape because of radiation pressure from the Sun.

So far, between 100 and 1,000 tons of dust have been ejected, comprising a small fraction of the overall mass.

The research team says this is the first, but likely not the last.

"In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more," Jewitt said. "This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come."

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    Danielle Elliot is a freelance science editor and reporter for CBS News. She holds an M.A. in science and health journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland. Follow her on Twitter - @daniellelliot.

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