Hubble zooms in on collision of two asteroids

Astronomers have used the Hubble space telescope to get a close-up view of a remarkable head-on collision of two asteroids. The giant space rocks created a spectacular trail of debris as they collided at 11,000mph – five times the speed of a rifle bullet – between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Pictures: Hubble’s photo of the debris left by the asteroid collision. Image credit: NASA

The cosmic pile-up is the first ever witnessed in the asteroid belt, 90 million miles away in space. A fragment from the same family of asteroids is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The fuzzy cloud from the debris was first photographed last month with a robotic camera called LINEAR that searches for asteroids in New Mexico. A further image was then taken using the University of Arizona’s giant 1.8-meter telescope on Kitt Peak.

The event was considered was so rare that Hubble was switched from its observing routine to get a close-up of it on January 29. NASA released its photo of the collision today.

The picture, taken with upgraded Hubble’s powerful new camera, shows a mysterious X-shaped pattern with trailing streamers of dust that suggest the collision was head-on, say experts.

A close-up of the head including the giant fragment that is the nucleus. Image credit: NASA

The heart of the main rock, labelled P/2010 A2, can be seen as a bright star-like point outide its own halo of dust. This nucleus is estimated to be about 460 ft wide.

NASA say a study of the orbit of P/2010 A2 suggests it belongs to the Flora asteroid family – rocks which shattered into pieces in a bigger collision more than 100 million years ago.

One fragment of that ancient smash is thought to have struck Earth 65 million years ago, triggering a mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs. But until now, no such asteroid-asteroid collision has been caught “in the act.”

Last year, Hubble was turned onto Jupiter to picture a bruise in its atmosphere that is thought to have been caused by a colliding comet or asteroid. The impact scar was originally discovered by an amateur astronomer.

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