Weird Asteroid has Identity Crisis, Grows a Tail

Astronomers have discovered that a well-known asteroid has a bit of an identity crisis.

Astronomers have discovered that a well-known asteroid has a bit of an identity crisis.

Usually, it's easy to differentiate between a comet and an asteroid. Composed of rock and ice, comets can become heated by the sun's heat as they approach, causing ices to sublimate, blasting vapor and dust into space. This creates a coma (an atmosphere-like layer) around the nucleus and a long tail sweeping back under the pressure of the solar wind. Asteroids, on the other hand, are composed mostly of rock and certainly have few comet-like qualities.

ANALYSIS: Hubble Discovers Weird Six-Tailed ‘Comet'

In recent years, however, this idea has been turned on its head with the discovery of well known asteroids, which appear to be happily orbiting in the solar system's Main Belt - a population of rocky bodies sandwiched between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter - that inextricably start looking like comets.

A dozen asteroids with dusty tails have been discovered so far and now another asteroid, which has spent the last decade just hanging out as a regular asteroid (or so astronomers thought), is also sporting a tail.

Asteroid 62412 is a member of the Hygiea family of asteroids in the Main Belt and it has also grown a tail. This is the first of this family of space rock to suddenly have a comet-like appearance.

NEWS: Centaurs: Cross-Dressing Comets That Go As Asteroids

Hygiea asteroids originated from the massive asteroid 10 Hygiea, a 250 mile-wide rock and fourth-largest asteroid in the belt, after a huge collision created a population of smaller asteroids that now comprise the Hygiea family. Hygiea asteroids account for around 1 percent of the belt's population.

Discovered by Scott Sheppard of Carnegie Institute in Washington D.C. and Chadwick Trujillo of the Gemini Observatory, 62412 is the 13th asteroid to be found with a comet-like tail, a phenomenon that has yet to be understood. In recent years, observational capabilities have improved and surveys of Main Belt asteroids have turned up this new class of object with thin coma and dusty tail.

Could asteroids with well-known and stable orbits suddenly expose ices to the sun, which then vaporize, erupting dust into space? Or are these tails indicative of asteroid-on-asteroid impacts?

"Until about ten years ago, it was pretty obvious what a comet was and what a comet wasn't, but that is all changing as we realize that not all of these objects show activity all of the time," said Sheppard.

ASTEROID: Dying Space Rock: Asteroid-Comet Hybrid Discovered

Sheppard and Trujillo are presenting their work at the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences meeting today (Nov. 11) and their study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal.

"We're actually looking anew through our deep survey at a population of objects that other people cannot easily observe, because we're going much deeper," he said.

The researchers have found that 62412 is a rapidly-rotating asteroid, a factor that may be contributing to its comet-like appearance. This rotation could move materail around on its surface, perhaps exposing sub-surface ices. If this is the case, newly-exposed volatiles could vent vapor into space, including quantities of dust.

By Sheppard and Trujillo's estimates, the Main Belt may contain around 100 of these objects and further astronomical surveys should expose many more. But until more are found, the mechanisms behind these asteroid-comet hybrids will likely remain a mystery for some time to come.

Source: Carnegie Institute

The faint tail of active asteroid 62412.

On Aug. 6, 2014, the European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft completed its decade-long journey to reach Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, becoming the first spacecraft to ever orbit a comet. The mission will reach its epic climax when it releases a small robotic lander, called Philae, onto the cometary surface in November. The lander will drill into the surface while Rosetta tags along with the comet's orbit as Churyumov-Gerasimenko makes close approach of the sun. Although Rosetta is unprecedented in that no other mission has achieved orbital insertion around a comet, it's certainly not the first robotic probe to make an intimate cometary encounter. So here's a rundown of 7 encounter of 6 comets by 5 spacecraft since the first close encounter with Halley's Comet in 1986.

Unquestionably the most famous comet in history, Halley's Comet was a prime target for space agencies in 1986 during its 75- to 76-year orbit through the inner solar system. Comet science is still a developing field, but in 1986, very little was known about the composition of these interplanetary vagabonds. In October of that year, the 15-kilometer-long Halley's Comet was visited by the European Space Agency's Giotto mission. The half-ton probe came within 600 kilometers (373 miles) of the comet's nucleus, taking the first photographs of the outgassing vapor from discrete areas of the surface producing its tail and coma (the gas surrounding the nucleus). It was this mission that confirmed the "dirty snowball" theory of cometary composition: a mix of volatile ices and dust. However, Giotto was only able to get so close to the famous comet with the help of the "Halley Armada," a number of international spacecraft all tasked with observing this rare event. Giotto captured the closest imagery, but two Russia/France probes (Vega 1 and 2) and two Japanese craft (Suisei and Sakigake) observed from afar.

At roughly half the size of Halley's comet, Comet Borrelly was found to have similar attributes to its famous cousin. The nucleus was also potato-shaped and blackened. Outgassing vapor was also observed coming from cracks in the nucleus crust where volatiles were exposed to sunlight, sublimating ices into space. NASA's Deep Space 1 probe flew past the comet with a close approach of 3,417 kilometers on Sept. 22, 2001.

Comet Wild 2 -- pronounced "Vilt" after its Swiss discoverer Paul Wild who spotted it in 1978 -- underwent a dramatic alteration in 1974. It is calculated that due to a close pass of Jupiter in 1974, the 5 kilometer-wide comet now orbits the sun every 6 years as opposed to its leisurely 43 years before the gas giant bullied it. The orbital modification meant that Wild 2 was an ideal target for NASA's Stardust mission to lock onto. On Jan. 4, 2004, the Stardust probe gave chase, getting so close to the comet that it was able to collect particles from Wild 2's coma. This image was taken at a distance of less than 240 kilometers (149 miles). The Stardust sample return canister came back to Earth safely, landing in Utah on Jan. 15, 2006. The microscopic particles captured from the comet continue to provide a valuable insight into the organic compounds comets contain. Interestingly, the Stardust spacecraft was granted a mission extension (dubbed New Exploration of Tempel 1 -- NExT). In 2011 it rendezvoused with its second comet, Tempel 1 -- the scene of NASA's 2005 Deep Impact mission -- to analyze the crater that Deep Impact's impactor left behind on the cometary surface.

NASA's Deep Impact mission reached the eight-kilometer-wide (five-mile-wide) comet Tempel 1 in 2005. On July 4, the probe deliberately smashed its impactor into the comet's nucleus, producing a cloud of fine material. A crater -- 100 meters wide (328 feet) by 30 meters (98 feet) deep -- was left behind. A treasure trove of compounds were spotted by the Deep Impact spacecraft and the explosion could be observed from Earth. In 2011, the recycled Stardust-NExT mission visited comet Tempel 1 for the second time.

The fifth space probe encounter with a comet happened on Nov. 4, 2010. NASA's recycled Deep Impact probe -- now the EPOXI mission -- visited comet Hartley 2, examining its strange-shaped nucleus. Described as a "peanut" or "chicken drumstick," this comet is an oddity. During its close approach of under 700 kilometers (435 miles), EPOXI photographed the comet's irregular topography: two rough lobes connected by a smooth center. Jets of gas could be seen being ejected from discrete locations. During the Hartley 2 flyby press conference at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), mission scientists expressed their surprise that these jets of vapor are being emitted from sun-facing and shaded regions on the comet surface. Needless to say, analysis of the Hartley 2 flyby data will keep scientists busy for some time to come. "This is an exploration moment," remarked Ed Weiler, NASA's Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, during the conference.

On Feb. 14, 2011, the veteran Stardust-NExT (New Exploration of Tempel) mission made history by visiting a comet for the second time. Comet Tempel 1 was first encountered by NASA's Deep Impact mission in 2005 after smashing the cometary nucleus with an impactor. This second encounter provided scientists with an unprecedented opportunity to study the same comet after six years of orbiting the sun. Preliminary findings suggested Tempel 1 has undergone some erosion during those six years in deep space. Also, the impact crater left behind by Deep Impact was imaged during the Stardust-NExT flyby and it appeared to match the size and shape predicted after the 2005 impact. However, the crater appeared smoother than expected, so work is ongoing to analyze the 72 photographs taken by the flyby to understand the processes shaping the comet's nucleus.

At 5:29 a.m. EDT (9:29 a.m. GMT) on Aug. 6, 2014, the European Rosetta spacecraft completed a 6.5 minute-long engine burn to insert itself into orbit around Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Once under the influence of the comet's weak gravity, the spacecraft began to carry out a series of triangular loops, taking several days to complete. The long-duration mission is the first of its kind, where the spacecraft will study the comet from orbit, watching for surface changes as it approaches the sun, making perihelion (the point of closest solar approach). In November, a small lander called Philae will touch down on the surface to drill into the comet's material, revealing its small-scale composition. This photograph from Rosetta was captured on Aug. 3 when the probe was fast approaching the comet at a distance of less than 300 kilometers.

READ MORE: Rosetta Probe Makes Historic Comet Rendezvous