The US space agency NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has uncovered a mysterious object present in the asteroid belt that has features of both,  an asteroid as well as a comet. Astronomers have spotted two asteroids that orbiting each other just like love buds but exhibit features of a comet like a bright halo of material, called a coma, and a long tail of dust.

Earlier astronomers thought that the strange object is only a single asteroid. However, as the asteroid named 300163 (2006 VW139) made its closest approach to the Sun back in September 2016, the Hubble Space Telescope has snapped crisp images which revealed that it was actually not one, but two asteroids of almost the same mass and size, orbiting each other at a distance of 60 miles.

Astronomers first discovered the asteroid 300163 (2006 VW139) in November 2006 under NASA’s Spacewatch program. Another NASA program called Pan-STARRS also spotted the asteroid, but found comet-like properties and named it as 288P. This makes the object the first known binary asteroid that is also classified as a main-belt comet.

The more recent Hubble observations revealed ongoing activity in the binary system. “We detected strong indications for the sublimation of water ice due to the increased solar heating — similar to how the tail of a comet is created,” explained team leader Jessica Agarwal of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany.

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. Understanding its origin and evolution may provide new insights into the early days of the solar system. Main-belt comets may help to answer how water came to a bone-dry Earth billions of years ago.

The team estimates that 2006 VW139/288P has existed as a binary system only for about 5,000 years. The most probable formation scenario is a breakup due to fast rotation. After that, the two fragments may have been moved further apart by the effects of ice sublimation, which would give a tiny push to an asteroid in one direction as water molecules are ejected in the other direction.

The fact that 2006 VW139/288P is so different from all other known binary asteroids raises some questions about how common such systems are in the asteroid belt. “We need more theoretical and observational work, as well as more objects similar to this object, to find an answer to this question,” concluded Agarwal.

The research is presented in a paper, to be published in the journal Nature this week.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the telescope. The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, conducts Hubble science operations. STScI is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., in Washington, D.C.

The Hubble space telescope was launched in 1990 and since then it is the largest telescope in space. HST has helped scientists in exploring the deepest corners of the universe and has beamed back millions of stunning shots in its entire career. However, HST will be replaced by the James Webb Telescope in 2018 as it has thrice larger lens when compared to HST.

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