While there is an inherent romanticism to going out in a blaze of glory and hurtling into the sun to end your existence, scientists have been forced to take these glamorous last seconds of life out of the equation following new research that shows that asteroids actually suffer an agonizing demise well away from the sun.
Research involved almost 9,000 Near-Earth Objects (NEO)
Originating in a donut-shaped asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, these 9,000 NEOs studied have changed the way scientists think of their destruction. Until this study that appeared in the journal Nature this week, scientists had wrongfully assumed that these objects were ending their lives by crashing into the sun. It turns out that they are actually dying a slow death, not unlike humans in their later stages of life, they are simply breaking down.
In a statement yesterday, Mikael Granvik, a research scientist at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the study noted that his team had discovered a “catastrophic loss” well before any collision with the sun.
“Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of this study is that it is now possible to test models of asteroid interiors simply by keeping track of their orbits and sizes. This is truly remarkable and was completely unexpected when we first started constructing the new NEO model,” Granvik said.
The study of these NEOs is vital as man moves closer to far-space missions where the presence of asteroids could present a serious problem.
These asteroids are deemed to be NEOs when their distance from the Sun during their nearest approach is less than 1.3 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun.
Where are all the asteroids?
According to Robert Jedicke of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, another of the authors of this study, the researchers created a model by using over 100,000 images acquired over about eight years by the Catalina Sky Survey (CSS) near Tucson, Arizona in order to study the nearly 9,000 NEOs.
Their model, as it happened, predicted that there would be nearly 10 times more asteroids and comets approaching the Sun on approaches within 10 solar diameters of the Sun.
This baffled those involved in the study and sent the researchers back to their results for over a year to figure out where they had gone wrong. As it happened, they hadn’t made any mistakes and having confirmed this they simply had to rethink “how the solar system works.”
It turns out, again, no blaze of glory and kamikaze-like fiery deaths but a long, lingering, fizzle as they neared the sun was the only explanation.
“The discovery that asteroids must be breaking up when they approach too close to the Sun was surprising and that’s why we spent so much time verifying our calculations,” Robert Jedicke said in a statement.
The study also revealed that this new death of the asteroid is the reason that scientists have struggled with their attempts to match meteors with their “parent” objects, known NEOs. It stands to reason that these meteors are the result of the NEOs breakup on its approach to the Sun so it’s no wonder the “parent” object couldn’t be found.
Additionally, this study shows that dark asteroids, those that don’t reflect light as other asteroids do, end their lives further from the Sun as their brighter compatriots because they are easier for the Sun to break down.