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New asteroid that 'belches out dust' discovered

By Sara Ganim, CNN
November 8, 2013 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
This graphic shows the path Asteroid 2014 RC will take as it passes Earth on Sunday, September 7. The space rock will come within one-tenth the distance from Earth to the moon, but it is not expected to threaten the planet. This graphic shows the path Asteroid 2014 RC will take as it passes Earth on Sunday, September 7. The space rock will come within one-tenth the distance from Earth to the moon, but it is not expected to threaten the planet.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on object in the solar system's asteroid belt
  • Astronomers discover it is an "asteroid with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it"
  • "We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," an astronomer says
  • One theory is that this is what happens to asteroids before they die

(CNN) -- What's that in the sky? Is it an asteroid? A comet? A lawn sprinkler?

Turns out a newly discovered object is a little bit of all three -- minus the fact that you won't find many green lawns millions of miles from Earth -- NASA announced Friday.

"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," David Jewitt, who leads the team exploring the "asteroid with six comet-like tails of dust radiating from it like spokes on a wheel."

"It" is P/2013 P5, which NASA described as an "unusually fuzzy-looking object" when it was spotted in August in our solar system's asteroid belt.

The Hubble Space Telescope then focused on it, photographing it first in early September and then again 13 days later. By then, it looked completely different -- as if it had done a 180-degree flip, NASA said.

"Its tail structures change dramatically ... as it belches out dust," Jewitt, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in a news release. "That also caught us by surprise. It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid."

Satellite falling to Earth

The first-of-its-kind discovery "completely knocked out" astounded astronomers, he added. Perhaps just as exciting is the expectation that this "amazing object (is) almost certainly the first of many to come."

As Jewitt said: "In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more."

The giant rock is about 1,400 feet wide and probably reaches surface temperatures of 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. For that reason, NASA thinks it's made of rock and not ice, like a typical comet is.

Tens of billions of planets out there are like Earth

The streams of dust were ejected six times between April and September -- something that the NASA team members believe might have been caused by the asteroid spinning so fast that its surface, at times, broke apart.

NASA is still watching P/2013 P5 -- which Jewitt says apparently is a fragment of a bigger asteroid that broke off approximately 200 million years ago -- to figure out exactly why it's doing what it's doing. One theory is that this is one way that asteroids die.

The full findings were published on November 7 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Big asteroid past Earth and will again in 19 years

CNN's Greg Botelho contributed to this report.

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