Answer Man: What's the 'weird and freakish object' astronomers have found?

News-DemocratNovember 18, 2013 

A friend said she was listening to one of those overnight shows that deal with UFOs and the paranormal. She heard that astronomers had discovered a strange object that was emitting six bright tails as it flew through space. Then they said that the Hopi Indians once predicted such an object was the final sign before the end of the world. I figure you could give us the skinny on whether any of this true or just more hokum by insomniac conspiracy theorists. -- K.W., of Collinsville

Talk about your out-of-this-world objects! Even down-to-earth scientists say this one is for the books.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have snapped images of a never-before-seen "weird and freakish object" in the asteroid belt that looks like a rotating lawn sprinkler.

Asteroids usually appear as tiny pinpricks of light in the nighttime sky. But this odd chunk of space rock, found in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, has six cometlike tails of dust radiating from it like spokes on a wheel.

Because this is such a first, scientists are scrambling to find a way to explain the behavior of this object, which has been given the bland designation of P/2013 P5.

"We were literally dumbfounded when we saw it," lead investigator David Jewitt, of UCLA, told the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md. "Even more amazing, its tail structures changed dramatically in just 13 days as it belched out dust. That also caught us by surprise. It's hard to believe we're looking at an asteroid."

The asteroid, about 112 million miles from Earth, was discovered as an unusually fuzzy object with the Pan-STARRS survey telescope in Hawaii. Further inspection using the Hubble scope found the multiple tails on Sept. 10. But when Hubble returned to the object two weeks later, its appearance had totally changed, as if the entire structure had swung around.

"We were completely knocked out," Jewitt said.

Some astronomers hypothesize that the pressure of sunlight is exerting torque on the asteroid, causing it to spin. If it spins fast enough, it may cause dust to slide down in numerous avalanches toward the object's equator. Then, because of the asteroid's weak gravity, the dust is thrown off into space to create the tails as the asteroid rotates, making it look like an extraterrestrial lawn sprinkler.

So far, only a small fraction of the asteroid has been lost -- perhaps 100 to 1,000 tons of dust, scientists calculate. The asteroid, with a 1,400-foot diameter, is thousands of times more massive, they say.

Of course, this scientific explanation is much too prosaic for students of the bizarre. Just as solar eclipses terrified people centuries ago, they say this object may just be the last on the list of the Hopi Indians' signs of Armageddon.

According to Frank Waters in his 1963 book, "Book of the Hopi," Taiowa, the creator, created his nephew, Sotuknang, to construct nine universes for life. Like the biblical story of Noah, three already have been destroyed because of man's wickedness. But each time one is destroyed, the faithful Hopis are taken underground and saved.

Currently, we are living in the fourth universe -- called Tuwaqaci -- but, from the looks of things, it's headed downhill fast. So, the Hopis are carefully monitoring the nine signs of destruction that Hopi elder White Feather outlined to Bob Frissell for his 2003 book, "Something in this Book is True."

The ninth and final sign will be the appearance of a celestial object they call the Blue Star Kachina. Soon after it shows up, World War III will begin and Earth will be destroyed, but, again, the Hopis will have gone underground to await the start of the fifth universe. Thus, some say that P/2013 P5 might be that blue star.

Scientists, of course, will tell you that's just so much heavenly hogwash. In fact, they expect to find more of these objects now that the first one has popped up.

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

For pictures and more information, go to hubblesite.org/news/2013/52.

Today's trivia

Where would you go to see the tallest church in the world?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: In 1837, 55-year-old Friedrich Froebel established what he called an "Anstalt fur Kleinkinder pflege" (institution for fostering little children) at Bad Blankenburg, Germany. He also began teaching others his philosophy of educating young minds. Then, the story goes, he was walking with friends one day when he supposedly stopped and shouted, "Eureka! 'Kindergarten' (a garden for children) shall the institute be called!" By the way, some say Froebel's students founded the first kindergarten in the United States in 1856 in Watertown, Wis., (now on the National Register of Historic Places) and the first English-language kindergarten in 1860 in Boston, long before either St. Louis (1873) or Belleville (1875).

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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