Skip to main content

New asteroid that 'belches out dust' discovered

By Sara Ganim, CNN
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
NASA scientists used Earth-based radar to produce these sharp views of the asteroid designated<a href='' target='_blank'> "2014 HQ124"</a> on Sunday, June 8. NASA scientists used Earth-based radar to produce these sharp views of the asteroid designated "2014 HQ124" on Sunday, June 8.
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
All about asteroids
  • The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on object in the solar system's asteroid belt
  • Astronomers discover it is an "asteroid with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it"
  • "We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," an astronomer says
  • One theory is that this is what happens to asteroids before they die

(CNN) -- What's that in the sky? Is it an asteroid? A comet? A lawn sprinkler?

Turns out a newly discovered object is a little bit of all three -- minus the fact that you won't find many green lawns millions of miles from Earth -- NASA announced Friday.

"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," David Jewitt, who leads the team exploring the "asteroid with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it like spokes on a wheel."

"It" is P/2013 P5, which NASA described as an "unusually fuzzy-looking object" when it was spotted in August in our solar system's asteroid belt.

The Hubble Space Telescope then focused on it, photographing it first in early September and then again 13 days later. By then, it looked completely different -- as if it had done a 180-degree flip, NASA said.

"Its tail structures change dramatically ... as it belches out dust," Jewitt, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a news release. "That also caught us by surprise. It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid."

Satellite falling to Earth

The first-of-its-kind discovery "completely knocked out" astounded astronomers, he added. Perhaps just as exciting is the expectation that this "amazing object (is) almost certainly the first of many to come."

As Jewitt said: "In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more."

The giant rock is about 1,400 feet wide and probably reaches surface temperatures of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. For that reason, NASA thinks it's made of rock and not ice, like a typical comet is.

Tens of billions of planets out there are like Earth

The streams of dust were ejected six times between April and September -- something that the NASA team members believe might have been caused by the asteroid spinning so fast that its surface, at times, broke apart.

NASA is still watching P/2013 P5 -- which Jewitt says apparently is a fragment of a bigger asteroid that broke off approximately 200 million years ago -- to figure out exactly why it's doing what it's doing. One theory is that this is one way that asteroids die.

The full findings were published on November 7 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Big asteroid past Earth and will again in 19 years

CNN's Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
June 29, 2014 -- Updated 1551 GMT (2351 HKT)
If you think you saw a flying saucer over Hawaii, you might not be crazy -- except what you saw didn't come from outer space, though that may be its ultimate destination.
June 27, 2014 -- Updated 0147 GMT (0947 HKT)
The U.S. space shuttle program retired in 2011, leaving American astronauts to hitchhike into orbit. But after three long years, NASA's successor is almost ready to make an entrance.
June 13, 2014 -- Updated 1421 GMT (2221 HKT)
When I first poked my head inside Virgin Galactic's newest spaceship, I felt a little like I was getting a front-row seat to space history.
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
The sun is putting on a fireworks show again.
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 2302 GMT (0702 HKT)
A year is a very long time on Mars -- 687 days. NASA's Curiosity rover can attest that it's enough time for some unexpected life changes.
May 8, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
It's hard to describe billions of years of cosmic history. But scientists have used a code to create a model of how the universe as we know it today might have evolved.
May 2, 2014 -- Updated 1800 GMT (0200 HKT)
At least one corner of the solar system may be serving up an ice-and-water sandwich, with the possibility of life on the rocks.
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1503 GMT (2303 HKT)
Planetary nebula Abell 33 has taken on romantic proportions.
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
You can't see it happening on Earth, but space itself is stretching. Ever since the Big Bang happened 13.8 billion years ago, the universe has been getting bigger.
March 26, 2014 -- Updated 2059 GMT (0459 HKT)
Scientists have added another celestial body to the short list of objects in our solar system that have rings around them.
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Astronomers have discovered a dwarf planet that's even farther away than Pluto.
February 28, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
Our galactic neighborhood just got a lot bigger. NASA announced the discovery of 715 new planets.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1437 GMT (2237 HKT)
Scientists have made a breakthrough in understanding how our world as we know it came to be.
February 25, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
From a sheep ranch in Western Australia comes the oldest slice of Earth we know.
February 19, 2014 -- Updated 1902 GMT (0302 HKT)
Cassiopeia A was a star more than eight times the mass of our sun before it exploded in the cataclysmic, fiery death astronomers call a supernova.
February 10, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Researchers have found clues that water could be flowing in the present, at least during warm seasons.
February 15, 2014 -- Updated 1602 GMT (0002 HKT)
The "jelly doughnut" rock that seemed to appear out of nowhere on Mars last month did not fall out of an extraterrestrial pastry box.
February 7, 2014 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
It's a dot in the sky.
February 13, 2014 -- Updated 0744 GMT (1544 HKT)
Reports of Jade Rabbit's demise may have been premature.
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It's rare for astronomers to spot a planet in a star cluster. That's partly why a cluster called Messier 67 is so special: We now know that it has three planets orbiting stars.