For the first time ever, an asteroid has been photographed breaking apart in space.
NASA's Hubble telescope was able to capture these images between October and January. You can see the asteroid gradually crumbling into 10 smaller pieces.
And we're not talking about tiny pebbles here. The biggest chunk is 650 ft. in diameter. And the leftover bits weigh a total of 200,000 tons. (Via European Space Agency / Hubble)
In a news release from HubbleSite, lead study author David Jewitt says this kind of breakup hasn't been observed before. "Seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing."
The asteroid, called P/2013 R3, was first spotted in the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars in September. The Keck Observatory took photos of it when it appeared to be only three objects in a cloud of dust. It was so odd that the Hubble telescope was called to the task.
Jewitt blames what he calls "quite pathetic radiation" for the disintegration. According to the Los Angeles Times, small numbers of photons have been bouncing off the asteroid for billions of years, and that was enough to break it apart.
Discovery helps explain the process. See, the sun warms one side of the asteroid, creating infrared radiation that makes the object spin more quickly over time. "Should the spinning become faster than the structure of the asteroid can hold itself together, centrifugal forces can literally rip it apart."
In other words, it was a gradual build up over millennia that caused the asteroid to spin itself to death. NASA created this graphic showing what the whole asteroid might have looked like just last year.
At this point, the chunks are drifting away from one another at the leisurely pace of about one mile an hour. Most of the pieces from the space rock will end up colliding with the sun, but a few of them could fall into Earth's orbit as meteors.