Last week, the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research (LINEAR) sky survey program, designed to sweep the heavens looking for near-Earth asteroids, spotted something really weird; an elongated streak that looked as if two asteroids had collided. Just days later, Hubble was pointed at the object, and what it saw was really really weird:
[Click to armageddonate.]
This is a false-color image showing the object, called P/2010 A2, in visible light. The long tail of debris is obvious; this is probably dust being blown back by the solar wind, similar to the way a comet’s tail is blown back. What apparently has happened is that two small, previously-undiscovered asteroids collided, impacting with a speed of at least 5 km/sec (and possibly faster). The energy in such a collision is like setting off a nuclear bomb, or actually many nuclear bombs! The asteroids shattered, and much of the debris expanded outward as pulverized dust.
Now, let me just take a moment and say HOLY HALEAKALA WHAT WE’RE SEEING HERE IS THE COLLISION BETWEEN TWO PREVIOUSLY UNDISCOVERED ASTEROIDS THAT EXPLODED LIKE THERMONUCLEAR WEAPONS WHEN THEY IMPACTED!!!
Phew. OK, I feel better. I needed to get that off my chest.
First off, to be clear we’re in no danger from this event. It was really far away (in human terms; 140 million km or 90 million miles — the object’s orbit keeps it farther from the Sun than Mars — so we’re not about to get pummeled with debris. And while the explosion energy was quite large — certainly much larger than any weapon ever detonated on Earth — it wasn’t radioactive, in case you’re worried about that sort of thing. This was a kinetic explosion, caused by a high-speed collision, and not an actual detonation of any kind.
Looking at the image, the bright spot to the left is most likely what’s left of one of the two asteroids, a chunk of rock estimated to be a mere 140 meters (450 feet) across. In the press release they’re not clear about the curved line emanating to the right of the nucleus. It may be — and I’m spitballing here — dust blown back from a stream of chunks, since the tail is broad and appears to originate from that swept curve, and not from the nucleus itself. The other filament perpendicular to the curve is from yet another piece of debris.
Despite how much this looks like a comet, ground-based observations indicate no gas is present, meaning this was from asteroids colliding, not comets, which have significant amounts of ice which turn to gas near the Sun. The collision energy was high enough to produce a lot of gas if any were present. That clinches this being an asteroid impact.
Also, the orbit of the object indicates it’s an asteroid, and it appears to be part of a well-known group of asteroids called the Flora family, which share similar orbital characteristics, and are probably remnants themselves of an ancient breakup of a much larger parent asteroid.
Nothing like this has ever been seen before. Sure, Hubble and about a hundred other telescopes observed the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slam in to Jupiter in 1994, but that was different than seeing two asteroids hit. Asteroids are small, and very very far apart on average (don’t believe scenes like that in "Empire Strikes Back"), so a collision like this is extremely rare, and catching it from such a great vantage point rarer still. But we have a lot of eyes on the sky, and the more we watch the more we’ll see.
And we’d better. An object 140 meters across hitting the Earth would, to be technical, suck. Hard. Whatever caused Meteor Crater in Arizona, an impact scar over a kilometer across, was itself probably about 40 meters across. An object like 2010 A2, which is three times the diameter, would have 20 -30 times the mass, and do considerably more damage. I’m glad groups like LINEAR are out there patrolling the skies for such things. We need to learn as much as we can about these asteroids, so that we can prevent the next Meteor Crater from occurring.