comet-with-6-tails

The strange multi-tailed space rock was imaged by the Hubble space telescope twice in September, and seemed to have rotated in-between the two dates. (NASA;ESA;D. Jewitt/UCLA et al.)

A strange object with half a dozen comet-like tails has been spotted in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, leaving astronomers wondering what it could be.

“We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it,” said  David Jewitt, an astronomer at the University of California, in a statement announcing the object’s discovery today.

Jewitt is the lead author of a scientific paper published today titled “The extraordinary multi-tailed main-belt comet P/2013 P5.”

Unlike the dusty ice balls that we normally think of as comets, P/2013 P5 probably doesn’t contain ice, said the paper, which is published in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Instead, it is described as a very unusual asteroid.

“Unlike all other known asteroids, which appear simply as tiny points of light, this asteroid, designated P/2013 P5, resembles a rotating lawn sprinkler,” reported NASA in a news release today.

The asteroid, which is about 240 metres wide, was first spotted by the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii at the end of August.

Because the object was “unusually fuzzy-looking,” scientists used the Hubble space telescope to take a more detailed image on Sept. 10, revealing the six tails.

The tails looked quite different and were pointed in different directions when astronomers observed it again on Sept. 23, suggesting that the object had rotated.

While a typical comet’s tail is formed by jets of gas and dust evaporating from the comet’s body, researchers don’t think that process is responsible for the six tails on P/2013 P5.