Astronomers have captured the first ever images of an asteroid breaking apart.
The experts used Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope to snap it disintegrating into 10 pieces.
Professor David Jewitt, of the University of California, who has been monitoring the asteroid, said: “Seeing this rock fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing.”
The pictures show the asteroid splitting up into rocky fragments up to 200 yards across between October last year and the middle of January this year. The pieces were travelling at about one mile per hour.
While most of the debris will plunge into the sun, a few could one day enter the Earth’s atmosphere as meteors, the experts said.
The astronomers – whose findings were published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters – said the asteroid began coming apart early last year but the new images show that pieces are still breaking away from it.
They said it was unlikely that the asteroid is breaking up because of a collision with another object because that would have caused an “instantaneous and violent” break-up.
They said that the break up is also unlikely to have been caused by ice inside the meteor warming and vaporising because it is in a very cold part of space, nearly 300 million miles from the sun.
Prof Jewitt, who led the astronomical forensics investigation into the asteroid, said it could have disintegrated because of a “subtle effect of sunlight”.
He said this can cause the rotation rate to slowly increase which causes the asteroid’s component pieces to gently pull apart due to “centrifugal force”.
Fragile comet nuclei have been seen falling apart as they near the sun but nothing resembling this type of break-up has been reliably observed before in the asteroid belt.