New camera at WIYN images an asteroid with a long tail

Asteroids generally have no tails, but there have been recent discoveries of a small class that eject dust.
By and | Published: June 4, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Asteroid P/2010 A2 with dust tail
Scale is 15 arcminutes by 8 arcminutes. // NOAO
Using the new wide-field camera at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope, astronomers have found that the peculiar asteroid P/2010 A2’s tail is much longer than previously supposed. The tail is about 600,000 miles (1 million kilometers) long, roughly three times the distance from Earth to the Moon.

Images taken with the new One Degree Imager (ODI), a wide-field optical camera at the WIYN telescope on Kitt Peak, reveal a tail that stretches over a quarter of a degree from the body of asteroid P/2010 A2. The ODI camera can currently image an area of the sky about the size of the Full Moon; a future upgrade will increase the size of the field to about four times as large.

Asteroids generally have no tails, but there have been recent discoveries of a small class that eject dust. Asteroid P/2010 A2 (named for its discovery year) was first seen by the LINEAR telescope, and follow-up Hubble images taken by D. Jewitt at UCLA, revealed an unusual structure — an X shape with a tail. This suggested that A2 was disrupted recently, either by a collision or by its own rotation.

“Previous images of A2 clearly indicated the tail extended beyond those relatively small fields of view,” said Jayadev Rajagopal at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson, Arizona. “We wanted to use the superb image quality over a wide field that ODI offers to see just by how much. But I don’t think we were quite expecting to see a tail that extends out to and beyond even the ODI field!”

The disruption of asteroid A2, which the team estimates happened about three and a half years ago, has resulted in centimeter-sized particles being spread out in a tube-like tail. Since Earth orbits in the same plane as this debris, we observe a line, or tail-like structure. In time, these particles, under the gravitational pull of the Sun, will form a meteor stream surrounding the Sun. Meteor streams are what we see as “shooting stars” when Earth ploughs through the stream of debris.

Debris from events like these contribute to the dust cloud — zodiacal dust — that is spread out over our solar system. The ODI images will help pin down the amount of dust that asteroids contribute to keeping this cloud replenished.