Astronomers have spotted a never-before-seen phenomenon in our solar system's asteroid belt: a space rock with six tails, spewing dust from its nucleus like spouts of water radiating from a lawn sprinkler.
Scientists using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope at the summit of Maui's Haleakala volcano in Hawaii first detected the six-tailed asteroid in August. They dubbed it P/2013 P5 and noted that it looked fuzzier than typical asteroids, which usually appear as tiny points of light. More detailed observations with the powerful Hubble Space Telescope in September revealed a clearer picture of asteroid, showing it had six comet-like tails.
An asteroid with six tails is shown in images from Hubble.Pin It Named P/2013 P5, this object is the first body in the asteroid belt to be spotted with multiple tails. The tails seem to have swung around in the time between the initial images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on Sept. 10, 2013 and the second observations on Sept. 23, 2013.
"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," researcher David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles said in a statement from NASA. "Even more amazing, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid." [The Strangest Asteroids in the Solar System]