The Asteroid with the growing Tail

A strange comet-like object discovered in 2010 ended up being an asteroid that had been the victim of a head-on collision from another space rock. The object created a bit of buzz because of its mysterious X-shaped debris pattern and long, trailing streamers of dust.

Named P/2010 A2 (LINEAR), the object is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and has been the focus of much study, including images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and many ground-based observatories. But over time, the asteroid’s long dust tail has grown to be so long that the entire object can’t fit into the field of view of most observatories.

“Here, we are watching the death of an asteroid,” said Jayadev Rajagopal, a scientist at the WIYN (Wisconsin Indiana at Yale NOAO) Telescope, speaking today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana . “Three and a half years after the initial disruption, and almost a full orbit around the Sun, the tail is still visible and growing. One of the reasons it is so long is that radiation pressure and gravity are stretching out the tail. It will progressively grow and sweep out into the ecliptic. We know of dozens of asteroids this has happened to in the past, but this is the only one showing us the event as it is happening.”

Using the new wide-field camera at the WIYN 3.5 meter telescope, Rajagopal and his team have found that the peculiar asteroid P/2010 A2′s tail is much longer than was previously supposed. The tail is about a million kilometers long, roughly three times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The new One Degree Imager (ODI) can currently image an area of the sky about the size of the full moon: a future upgrade will increase the size of the field to about four times as large.

“Imaging the full extent of the tail will help us pin down the total mass in the dust tail,” said Rajagopal, and also help determine the size of dust particles.”

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