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Worlds without end: Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have identified a strange new object in the asteroid belt, two asteroids closely orbiting each other while also acting like a comet.
The images of 288P, which is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, revealed that it was actually not a single object, but two asteroids of almost the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of about 100 kilometres. That discovery was in itself an important find; because they orbit each other, the masses of the objects in such systems can be measured.
But the observations also revealed ongoing activity in the binary system. “We detected strong indications of the sublimation of water ice due to the increased solar heating — similar to how the tail of a comet is created,” explains Jessica Agarwal (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany), the team leader and main author of the research paper. This makes 288P the first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.
The data also suggests that this binary has only existed as such for a few thousand years, and probably broke into two pieces because of its rotation. When this happened, it exposed water ice buried below the surface, which having been exposed to sunlight is sublimating away and producing the binary’s cometlike of a tail and coma.