Asteroid 6478 Gault, imaged here by the Hubble Space Telescope, features two distinct comet-like tails of debris made of a dust and pebbles flung out into space by the spin imparted due to solar heating and radiation pressure. Image: NASA, ESA, K. Meech and J. Kleyna (University of Hawaii), O. Hainaut (European Southern Observatory)
Using ground-based telescopes, all-sky surveys and even the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have found a suicidal asteroid that is flying apart thanks to solar heating and subsequent infrared emissions that cause it to spin faster and faster.
Known as 6478 Gault, the asteroid measures four to nine kilometres (2.5 to 5.5 miles) across, and features two comet-like tails of debris being released into space. The asteroid is in a destructive spin caused by a phenomenon known as YORP torque. As the body is warmed by the sun, infrared radiation escapes that carries away heat and momentum.
This small force causes the asteroid to spin up to the point that centrifugal force can eventually overcome gravity. As the body becomes increasingly unstable, landslides can cause rubble and dust to stream off into space, creating one or more tails. Of the 800,000 known asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, ...