APR 23, 2017 8:14 AM PDT

The Curious Case of Why Asteroid P/2013 R3 Shattered Into Many Pieces

WRITTEN BY: Anthony Bouchard

Astronomers have been studying the mysterious breakup of asteroid P/2013 R3 for over three years, and while the reasoning behind why it appeared to shatter from out of nowhere eluded experts for so long, we now think we know what happened.

P/2013 R3 shattered into more than 10 pieces in this snapshot from Hubble Space Telescope.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and D. Jewitt (University of California, Los Angeles)

A study accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal offers a possible explanation for why P/2013 R3 shattered into more than 10 pieces before the eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope just years ago.

As noted in the study, the fragments were drifting apart from one another at a very low rate of speed, about 0.9 MPH, which virtually eliminates the idea that some kind of collision dealt a blow hard enough to shatter the space rock.

Related: Could asteroids have brought water to Earth?

Instead, experts turned their attention to a phenomenon known as the Yarkovsky-O'Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack (YORP) effect. This is basically explained as when a source of heat causes an unstable object to start to spin, gradually gaining speed over time.

An illustration of how the YORP effect acted on asteroid P/2013 R3.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Jewitt (UCLA), and A. Feild (STScI)

In our Solar System, gravity helps keep everything glued together. On the other hand, everything is in free-spin and anything forced to spin by the YORP effect doesn’t meet any resistance. That said, as an unstable object spins, the spinning can only get faster as the source of heat continues to act on it.

The main source of heat in our Solar System is our Sun, and because asteroids are typically small and irregularly-shaped objects orbiting the Sun, they can be considered relatively easy targets for trapping pockets of heat from our host star.

In the case of P/2013 R3, which had an unstable structure to begin with, spinning too quickly may have eventually caused the loosely-packed, rubble-like internal structure of the asteroid to fling apart in all directions by means of centrifugal force.

“This indicates that the sun may play a large role in disintegrating these small solar system bodies, by putting pressure on them via sunlight,” study co-author Jessica Agarwal said.

Related: In terms of asteroid collision, size really does matter

When we think of space rocks, we probably think of solid objects like the rocks we’d find on the ground here on Earth, but not everything in space is as solidly-packed as what we find on the ground. Sometimes larger objects clump together through gravity and aren’t completely merged together.

This was likely the case of P/2013 R3, and the slow drift-away speed from the shattered asteroid bits seems to support the hypothesis that the YORP effect was the cause for the event.

While we don’t know for sure that this was the exact cause just yet, it’s a great starting point to begin our research. Nevertheless, you can observe the breakup of the asteroid and judge for yourself from the following HubbleESA video on YouTube:

Source: Space.com

About the Author
  • Fascinated by scientific discoveries and media, Anthony found his way here at LabRoots, where he would be able to dabble in the two. Anthony is a technology junkie that has vast experience in computer systems and automobile mechanics, as opposite as those sound.
You May Also Like
MAR 09, 2020
Space & Astronomy
What Dragonfly Will Do Upon Arriving At Titan
MAR 09, 2020
What Dragonfly Will Do Upon Arriving At Titan
There’s so much happening by way of Martian exploration that it can be easy to forget all the other missions that ...
MAR 29, 2020
Space & Astronomy
NASA is Sending This Golden Box to Mars to Make Oxygen
MAR 29, 2020
NASA is Sending This Golden Box to Mars to Make Oxygen
NASA’s Perseverance rover, formerly known as just the Mars 2020 rover, will do quite a bit more than merely drive ...
APR 19, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Expedition 62 Returns Home From the International Space Station
APR 19, 2020
Expedition 62 Returns Home From the International Space Station
After spending several months onboard the International Space Station conducting science experiments and risky spacewalk ...
JUN 01, 2020
Space & Astronomy
Why SpaceX's Demo-2 Launch This Past Weekend Was So Significant
JUN 01, 2020
Why SpaceX's Demo-2 Launch This Past Weekend Was So Significant
If you somehow managed to miss the exciting news this past weekend, NASA and SpaceX set an important precedent in Americ ...
JUN 17, 2020
Chemistry & Physics
Mapping the heliosphere with IBEX
JUN 17, 2020
Mapping the heliosphere with IBEX
A study published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplements reports findings from NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Expl ...
JUL 31, 2020
Space & Astronomy
How Many Missions to Mars Have Been Successful?
JUL 31, 2020
How Many Missions to Mars Have Been Successful?
It’s commonly said that roughly half of all missions to Mars have succeeded- while roughly half have failed. But a ...
Loading Comments...