An international team of astronomers captured new images of a rapidly-rotating asteroid between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid, called Kleopatra, was first discovered orbiting our Sun twenty years ago. The latest observations suggest the space rock, also known as the "dog bone asteroid" because of its shape, could soon break apart, a report from Live Science explains.
The 11 new images captured between 2017 and 2019 by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) gave scientists the most detailed look at the asteroid so far.
A precarious pile of spinning space rubble
The team's observations, detailed in a paper published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, provided new insight into Kleopatra, showing that it is essentially a pile of rapidly-spinning space rubble that may be close to breaking up and becoming undetectable.
Astronomers like to study unusual space objects because they have great potential for teaching us unknown facts about our universe. That's why, for example, astronomers search for large flashing bursts of radio waves called radio transients — earlier this month, a paper detailed how the discovery of an unusual burst of radio waves led to the discovery of a supernova that had been prematurely triggered by a nearby black hole. Kleopatra falls under a similar category due to its unusual shape, according to Franck Marchis, the lead author on the new study and a SETI Institute astronomer. "Kleopatra is truly a unique body in our Solar System," Marchis said in a press release. "Science makes a lot of progress thanks to the study of weird outliers," he continued. "I think Kleopatra is one of those, and understanding this complex, multiple-asteroid system can help us learn more about our Solar System."
Future observations may reveal new Kleopatra moons
The dog bone asteroid is approximately 167 miles (270 kilometers) long. It's so large that it has its own pair of moons called Alexhelios and Cleoselene. However, the new observations suggest that the existence of the asteroid may be more precarious than previously believed. It is spinning so quickly, that it may break apart from its own momentum, the researchers explain. Alternatively, even a small collision with another piece of space debris could break off large parts of Kleopatra due to the speed at which it is traveling.
The researchers say that the asteroid's moons may have actually been born of such a collision, as they are likely two large pieces of the asteroid that were broken off of the main body many years ago — as is thought to be the case with our own Moon, according to the Giant-Impact Hypothesis.
The researchers behind the latest paper hope they can soon glean more information from Kleopatra, though time may be running out due to the asteroid's precarious nature. In 2027, the European Southern Observatory will start observing the solar system with a new observatory called the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which may even lead to the discovery of new moons, the researchers said.