Instead of appearing as a small point of light, like most asteroids, this one has half a dozen comet-like dust tails radiating out like spokes on a wheel, said a report in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
“It’s hard to believe we’re looking at an asteroid,” said lead investigator David Jewitt, a professor in the University of California Los Angeles Department of Earth and Space Sciences.
“We were dumbfounded when we saw it. Amazingly, its tail structures change dramatically in just 13 days as it belches out dust.”
The object has been named P/2013 P5 and astronomers believe it has been spewing dust for at least five months.
The asteroid may have started spinning so fast that it began to disintegrate, scientists say.
They don’t think the tails are a result of an impact, because that would cause dust to spray out all at once.
Its multiple tails were discovered in images taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope on September 10, 2013, after first being spotted with a telescope in Hawaii.
Jewitt said the object may have come from an asteroid collision 200 million years ago. Its pattern of dispersing dust in fits and bursts may be how it slowly dies.
“In astronomy, where you find one, you eventually find a whole bunch more,” he said. “This is an amazing object and almost certainly the first of many more to come.”