Is Asteroid Scheila Really Comet Scheila?
Asteroid Scheila/Comet Scheila Update
Apparently asteroid Scheila is not a comet that somehow got trapped in the asteroid belt. Apparently asteroid Scheila is an asteroid and, by random chance, Earth cameras just happened to catch sight of Scheila only weeks after another asteroid or meteor impacted Scheila sending up dust and debris.
It looks like astronomers came to this conclusion by studying the spectrum of the light reflected back from the debris. Since that spectrum didn’t match the kind of light astronomers normally see reflected off comet out-gassing, astronomers concluded Scheila is a more-or-less normal asteroid that was the victim of a hit-and-run.
Here’s the story. There are videos at the link.
NASA uses a “Star Wars” clip [?!] to introduce their video explaining the collision. NASA did it.
It’s not my fault!
Hit and Run Asteroid Caused Scheila’s Comet-like Behavior
by Nancy Atkinson on May 3, 2011
Asteroid or comet? That was the question astronomers were asking after an asteroid named Scheila had unexpectedly brightened, and seemingly sprouted a tail and coma. But follow-up observations by the Swift satellite and the Hubble Space Telescope show that these changes likely occurred after Scheila was struck by a much smaller asteroid.
“Collisions between asteroids create rock fragments, from fine dust to huge boulders, that impact planets and their moons,” said Dennis Bodewits, an astronomer at the University of Maryland in College Park and lead author of the Swift study. “Yet this is the first time we’ve been able to catch one just weeks after the smash-up, long before the evidence fades away.”
Faint dust plumes bookend asteroid (596) Scheila, which is overexposed in this composite. Visible and ultraviolet images from Swift's UVOT (circled) are merged with a Digital Sky Survey image of the same region. The UVOT images were acquired on Dec. 15, 2010, when the asteroid was about 232 million miles from Earth. Credit: NASA/Swift/DSS/D. Bodewits (UMD)
On Dec. 11, 2010, images from the University of Arizona’s Catalina Sky Survey, a project of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program, revealed the Scheila to be twice as bright as expected and immersed in a faint comet-like glow. Looking through the survey’s archived images, astronomers inferred the outburst began between Nov. 11 and Dec. 3.
Three days after the outburst was announced, Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) captured multiple images and a spectrum of the asteroid. Ultraviolet sunlight breaks up the gas molecules surrounding comets; water, for example, is transformed into hydroxyl (OH) and hydrogen (H). But none of the emissions most commonly identified in comets — such as hydroxyl or cyanogen (CN) — showed up in the UVOT spectrum. The absence of gas around Scheila led the Swift team to reject the idea that Scheila was actually a comet and that exposed ice accounted for the brightening.
Hubble observed the asteroid’s fading dust cloud on Dec. 27, 2010, and Jan. 4, 2011. Images show the asteroid was flanked in the north by a bright dust plume and in the south by a fainter one. The dual plumes formed as small dust particles excavated by the impact were pushed away from the asteroid by sunlight.
The science teams from the two space observatories found the observations were best explained by a collision with a small asteroid impacting Scheila’s surface at an angle of less than 30 degrees, leaving a crater 1,000 feet across. Laboratory experiments show a more direct strike probably wouldn’t have produced two distinct dust plumes. The researchers estimated the crash ejected more than 660,000 tons of dust–equivalent to nearly twice the mass of the Empire State Building.
The Hubble Space Telescope imaged (596) Scheila on Dec. 27, 2010, when the asteroid was about 218 million miles away. Scheila is overexposed in this image to reveal the faint dust features. The asteroid is surrounded by a C-shaped cloud of particles and displays a linear dust tail in this visible-light picture acquired by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3. Because Hubble tracked the asteroid during the exposure, the star images are trailed. Credit: NASA/ESA/D. Jewitt (UCLA)
“The Hubble data are most simply explained by the impact, at 11,000 mph, of a previously unknown asteroid about 100 feet in diameter,” said Hubble team leader David Jewitt at the University of California in Los Angeles. Hubble did not see any discrete collision fragments, unlike its 2009 observations of P/2010 A2, the first identified asteroid collision.
Scheila is approximately 113 km (70 miles) across and orbits the sun every five years.
“The dust cloud around Scheila could be 10,000 times as massive as the one ejected from comet 9P/Tempel 1 during NASA’s UMD-led Deep Impact mission,” said co-author Michael Kelley, also at the University of Maryland. “Collisions allow us to peek inside comets and asteroids. Ejecta kicked up by Deep Impact contained lots of ice, and the absence of ice in Scheila’s interior shows that it’s entirely unlike comets.”
The studies will appear in the May 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
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