Astronomers find comet hidden in Solar System’s main asteroid belt

Using data from NASA’s Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) survey, astronomers have detected a comet in the main asteroid belt, an unusual location for comets. Named asteroid (248370) 2005 QN137, the body of the solar system was earlier identified as the eighth asteroid in the main belt and discovered in 2005. But on July 7 of this year, astronomers were surprised to discover that the space rock had grown a tail, a property exhibited by comets.

Unlike asteroids, which live primarily in the main asteroid belt orbiting the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, comets primarily live in the Kuiper Belt, an orbit that exists beyond Neptune – the planet. furthest from our solar system – and is 20 times wider than the main asteroid belt.

Comets are much smaller space rocks than asteroids and due to their small masses they follow long elliptical orbits sometimes going very close to the sun. After living in the cold depths of the Outer Solar System for hundreds and thousands of years, they enter the Inner Solar System and as they approach the Sun their surface evaporates leaving a trail of dust and giving them their characteristic appearance.

In 2006, astronomers David Jewitt and Henry Hsieh discovered that small asteroids in the main asteroid belt could also develop comet-like properties, such that their ice could sublimate and exhibit a dust tail. Jewitt and Hsieh called them main belt comets.

Now, Hsieh has discovered that the Main Belt Asteroid (248370) 2005 QN137 meets the physical definition of a comet because it is icy and throws dust into space despite following orbit. of an asteroid. “This duality and blurring of the line between what were previously thought to be two completely separate types of objects – asteroids and comets – is a key part of what makes these objects so interesting,” Hseih said in a statement. The head of the recently observed Main Belt comet is 3.2 kilometers in diameter while its tail is 720,000 kilometers long. The width of the tail is 1,400 kilometers wide.

The results were published September 30 in Earth and Planetary Astrophysics.

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