A team of astronomers at the University of Hawaii has discovered a new type of asteroid: It is the first Jupiter Trojan to have a tail like comets.
To make this finding, astronomers at the University of Hawaii have used the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) telescope. In early 2019, this instrument showed what appeared to be a weak asteroid near Jupiter’s orbit. Later, inspection of the ATLAS images revealed its likely cometary nature, and in July they discovered it had a faint tail made of dust or gas.
Already in April 2020 the asteroid reappeared in ATLAS observations, confirming that it still looked like a comet, so it has been active for almost a year.
If you are fond of astronomy you will surely know perfectly the difference between asteroids and comets. Asteroids are inert, dry, rocky bodies with orbits in the Solar System similar to those of planets. Comets, for their part, are celestial bodies with a long and looped orbit, made up of rocks, dust and ice that generate a tail when it approaches the Sun.
Recently, Astronomers have identified an increasing number of objects that exhibit characteristics of both celestial bodies. These objects look like asteroids at first, because they are inert rocky bodies with orbits like those of planets, but then they develop activity, like a tail, which is typical of comets. These objects are known as active asteroids.
The only asteroid of its kind that this team has discovered is called 2019 LD2 and it is special not because it has a tail, but because it is the first Jupiter Trojan to possess this characteristic.
Trojans are asteroids that accompany planets in their orbit around the Sun. Earth has at least one, Neptune has dozens, and Jupiter has hundreds of thousands, forming two large swarms. So far none of them have been observed to be active.
“What makes 2019 LD2 so interesting is that we believe that most Jupiter Trojans were captured millions of years ago. Any surface of ice that can be vaporized to spew gas and dust should have been long ago, leaving objects in silent orbit like asteroids without behaving like comets “, the researchers explain in a statement.
Therefore, what makes 2019 LD2 unique is not that it has a tail as a comment, a phenomenon that, although rare, has already been previously observed in other cases. This asteroid is special because it is the only active Jupiter Trojan and astronomers did not expect it to have cometary behavior.
“The Universe is full of surprises, and studies to protect Earth from dangerous asteroids often make unexpected discoveries of harmless, but fascinating, objects that may reveal more about the history of our Solar System. “, the researchers say.
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