The Hubble observations also confirmed ongoing activity in the binary system.
Hubble was used to image the asteroid, designated 2006 VW139, in September 2016 - and the image revealed that it's not one, but two asteroids.
Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have spotted an unusual object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter: two asteroids orbiting each other and exhibiting comet-like features, including a bright coma and a long tail. Scientists said that the pair's orbital characteristics are different from all other known asteroid binaries.
Located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, scientists have spotted a weird pair of asteroids, known after their collective name, 288P.
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Back in 2006, Spacewatch discovered an asteroid named 300163 (2006 VW139).
NASA said the combined features of the binary asteroid - wide separation, near-equal component size, high eccentricity orbit, and comet-like activity - also make it unique among the few known binary asteroids that have a wide separation.
"We detected strong indications for the sublimation [immediate conversion of a solid into a gas] of water ice due to the increased solar heating - similar to how the tail of a comet is created", noted Jessica Agarwal, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research who's studying the object, in a statement. Intense rotation could have caused a single object to break in two around 5,000 years ago.
Understanding the origin and evolution of main-belt comets is crucial to our understanding of the formation and evolution of the whole Solar System.
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The discovery of the binary system raises questions about how common such planetary objects may be in the solar system. The aging Hubble Space Telescope was trained on 288P, and the newly released images indicate this is a new type of object.
Observing 288P could yield information about its past.
Then, when subjected to the effects of ice sublimation, the pieces likely moved further apart.
According to Agarwal, more observations will be needed to determine if there might be other similar objects in the night sky, or if this is a rarity.
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