Astronomers zero in on blue-hued asteroid

Researchers may have gotten one step closer to figuring out the mysterious nature of an asteroid dubbed 3200 Phaethon.

University of Arizona Ph.D. student Teddy Kareta headed up a group of people studying the space rock. He presented their research Tuesday in Tennessee, where the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Science is holding its annual meeting.

3200 Phaethon, however, stood out long before Kareta's team examined it.

The asteroid – which is behind the Geminid meteor shower – was found in the heavens in 1983. Before then, astronomers only connected meteor showers to comets, Kareta wrote in a news release.

“When they found Phaethon, it just looks like a dot in the sky,” Kareta told Fox News. “It doesn’t have comet-like activities.”

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It’s also notable for its color: astronomers discovered 3200 Phaethon was a unique blue color after it was initially found, he explained.

“One in 20 asteroids are blue,” Kareta said. “Even fewer are blue like Phaethon.”

Kareta's team got to examine the space rock in mid-December 2017.

Researchers used NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii to look at the sunlight reflected off the object, he explained. After recording data, they looked at a “complimentary study” from 2007 which involved similar research done in Arizona.

For Kareta, there were two key takeaways.

People have tried connecting 3200 Phaethon to other asteroids – like another blue-hued one, dubbed 2 Pallas – because of its reflectivity and color, he explained.

“Interestingly, we found Phaethon to be even darker than had been previously observed, about half as reflective as Pallas," Kareta said in a written statement. "This makes it more difficult to say how Phaethon and Pallas are related.”

The group may not know the exact connection, but they still have some ideas. Kareta said the team thinks 3200 Phaethon “might be related or have broken off from” the other space object.

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Kareta's team also noticed its blue color was even throughout. This, Kareta said, is probably “because it’s been cooked so much,” given how close the object gets to the sun during orbit.

The researcher acknowledged it’s hard to classify 3200 Phaethon’s true identity.

“I can’t say if we’ve solved this thing, but I think we’re closer than ever,” Kareta said, adding it’s “safest” to describe the object as “an asteroid with comet-like properties.”

Regardless, he thinks it's "far out."

“It doesn’t really matter what you call it,” he said. “It’s just cool.”