For the first time ever, astronomers witnessed a color-changing asteroid. Asteroid 6478 Gault lies in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The color-changing asteroid 6478 Gault even sports a comet-like dust trail.
The space rock has baffled an MIT-led team as they have witnessed it changing its color from red to blue.
“It is the first time scientists have observed a color-shifting asteroid, in real-time,” the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said in a release on Thursday.
The color-shifting process wasn’t visible to the naked eye but astronomers witnessed the activity in the near-infrared spectrum.
“We think we have witnessed the asteroid losing its reddish dust to space, and we are seeing the asteroid’s underlying, fresh blue layers,” postdoctorate Michael Marsset said.
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Astronomers also confirmed that the asteroid is rocky and that proves that an entirely different mechanism is causing the asteroid’s comet-like tail, as comets are not rocky but more like loose snowballs of ice and dust.
“It’s the first time to my knowledge that we see a rocky body emitting dust, a little bit like a comet,” Marsset says. “It means that probably some mechanism responsible for dust emission is different from comets and different from most other active main-belt asteroids.”
Asteroid 6478 Gault was first discovered in 1988 and has since been on astronomers’ radars. However, the asteroid didn’t stand out from the crowd until recently.
Observations from late 2018 and early 2019 showed the space rock was kicking out two dust tails, a rarity for an asteroid. When astronomers looked closer at 6478 Gault, they found the asteroid was changing color. The researchers suspect the asteroid is spinning very quickly and shedding its old surface dust to reveal fresh material below.
Scientists noted, “They are likely seeing the asteroid’s surface dust, turned red over millions of years of exposure to the sun, being ejected into space, revealing a fresh, less irradiated surface beneath, that appears blue at near-infrared wavelengths.”
“Interestingly, you only need a very thin layer to be removed to see a change in the spectrum. It could be as thin as a single layer of grains just microns deep.”
NASA said those tails could be “key evidence that Gault is beginning to come apart.”
The MIT-led research team published its findings in Astrophysical Journal Letters on Friday.