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Scientists spot odd pair of asteroids locked in a watery dance

Published Sep 21st, 2017 7:32PM EDT

While NASA is hard at work getting a fancy probe to steal rocks from a nearby asteroid, researchers with their eyes on the rocky belt of debris that dominates the space between Mars and Jupiter have detected a pair of rocks that are doing something never before seen. The rocks, which are considered a binary asteroid with the singular name 288P, are locked in orbit around each other, shooting out plumes of water vapor as they dance in the darkness of space.

Astronomers have seen many different types of asteroids and gone to great lengths to observe and document their behaviors. They’ve seen binary asteroids in the past, as well as asteroids that have a habit of firing jets of vapor as they cruise along, but never before have the two factors been present in a single body.

The interesting traits of 288P don’t end there; the two rocks are also orbiting each other at a much wider distance than they theoretically should. A gap of over 60 miles separates the rocks, which is an order of magnitude greater than what scientists would have predicted. The current best guess as to why centers on the rocks’ water-spewing behavior, which may have gently nudged the two asteroids in opposite directions, resulting in an incredibly wide gap between them.

This peculiar combination of features makes 288P a real weirdo, at least in terms of asteroids, but it could also hint at how some asteroids mature over time. The asteroids are quite a ways from Earth, so studying them in great detail isn’t possible, but scientists will be keeping an eye on the odd pair in the hopes that they will reveal more of their secrets.

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