Comet may be colliding asteroids

Astronomers are watching what they believe to be two colliding asteroids deep in space. If they are right, it is the first time a high-speed crash has ever been witnessed between massive space rocks.

The mystery comet imaged by Dr Robert McMillan at Kitt Peak, Arizona

The cosmic hit-and-run is happening 250 million miles away in a band of debris lying between planets Mars and Jupiter – the main asteroid belt.

An automatic sky camera called LINEAR in New Mexico snapped a newly discovered object there that looks fuzzy with a tail like a comet rather than a dot of light like a normal asteroid. It has been labelled P/2010 A2.

Skywatchers believe they are getting a unique ringside view of a hypervelocity collision that has thrown up a cloud of gas and dust. They say they can see large lumps of debris from the smashed asteroid in the tail, supporting the view that this is an impact.

The asteroid belt is littered with debris from crashes between giant rocks but a collision has never before been seen to happen.

LINEAR – the Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research project – was set up as a robotic telescope to help find space rocks that threaten to hit our planet. But objects in the asteroid belt pose no threat to us.

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

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