Scientists have identified a space rock that has six spinning "tails" with the assistance of the Hubble Space Telescope — a strangely beautiful astral body that resembles a skewed comet.
"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," said lead investigator David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles, according to a NASA press release.
"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."
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The findings, published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters this week, are unprecedented, and the comet has been named P/2013 P5.
Scientists suspect that the comet's bizarre appearance may be because it has begun to rotate so fast it is beginning to fall apart — destruction that the six "tails" are a natural testament to.
It's probable that more strange structures like P/2013 P5 are out there. "In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more," said Jewitt in the NASA release. "This is just an amazing object to us, and almost certainly the first of many more to come."
What's the difference between an asteroid and a comet — terms that have both been used to describe P/2013 P5? According to NASA's Near Earth Object Program, an asteroid is defined as "a relatively small, inactive, rocky body orbiting the Sun." Think of a giant space rock. Perhaps even the one Bruce Willis had to destroy in "Armageddon."
Meanwhile, a comet is described as "a relatively small, at times active, object whose ices can vaporize in sunlight forming an atmosphere (coma) of dust and gas and, sometimes, a tail of dust and/or gas." Think of the Hale-Bopp comet from the 1990s.
P/2013 P5 fits the description of both in some respects, which may explain the interchangeable term. For reference, the Chelyabinsk meteor that hit Russia this year was an asteroid, not a comet.