Mysterious force breaks up Asteroid P/2013 R3 in deep space - Mar 8, 2014

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has recorded the never-before-seen break-up of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

Fragile comets, comprised of ice and dust, have been seen falling apart as they approach the sun, but nothing like this has ever before been observed in the asteroid belt.

The space-based Hubble observations showed that there were really ten distinct objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 200 meters in radius, about twice the length of a football pitch.

Asteroid P/2013 R3, which is located in the Solar System's main asteroid belt, broke up between 29 October 2013 and 14 January 2014.

It is unlikely the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid and it is also unlikely that the asteroid is breaking apart due to the pressure of interior ices warming and vaporising.

But there is a chance that slow heating of different areas of the asteroid due to sunlight is breaking the rock apart. If true, observing how it works could be important.

Breaking up an asteroid using the power of the sun has been discussed before as a potential way our ancestors might attempt to destroy an asteroid before it hits Earth.

The asteroid's remnant debris, weighing about 200,000 tons and. most will eventually plunge into the sun, but a small fraction of the debris may one day blaze across our skies as meteors.