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NASA's Hubble spies asteroid spouting six comet-like tails

  • asteroidgraphic.jpg

    This is a diagram of the structure seen around an active asteroid designated P/2013 P5. (NASA/ESA/A. Feild (STScI))

  • 6 tail comet.jpg

    This NASA Hubble Space Telescope set of images reveals a never-before-seen set of six comet-like tails radiating from a body in the asteroid belt, designated P/2013 P5. (NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA))

Is it a lawn sprinkler in space? 

An asteroid with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it -- like a rotating lawn sprinkler -- was spotted for the first time by NASA's Hubble Space telescope.

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

Astronomers were puzzled over the tiny points of light beaming from asteroid P/2013 P5 found in August. However, it wasn't until September 10 when Hubble was used to take a more detailed image of the flying object that the multiple tails were discovered.

When Hubble spotted the asteroid again on September 23, 

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

Astronomers believe the asteroid's rotation rate increased to the point where its surface starting flying apart causing the tails of dust to blast off into space.

The mysterious asteroid will continue to be observed by Jewitt and his team of astronomers in hopes of measuring the asteroid's true spin rate

"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."

Jewitt said P/2013 P5 is probably a fragment of a larger asteroid that broke apart in a collision approximately 200 million-years ago.