“The Keck Observatory showed us this thing was worth looking at with Hubble,” David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles said in a statement. “With its superior resolution, space telescope observations soon showed there were really 10 embedded objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 400 yards in diameter, about four times the length of a football field.”
According to Hubble data, the asteroid began to break apart early last year, but its fragments are drifting away from each other very slowly at merely one mile per hour.
The scientists believe there are possibilities that P/2013 R3 is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight that gradually increases the rotation rate of the asteroid, whose components gradually succumb to the central force and then pull apart.
Astronomers said that the asteroid's remnants, weighing about 200,000 tons, could turn into meteoroids in the future, and a small fraction of the debris may blaze across the skies while others will eventually plunge into the sun.