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Kent astronomers observe aftermath of cosmic collision
Dr Stephen Lowry led observations following a rare cosmic collision beyond the orbit of Mars, a unique event that presented an unprecedented opportunity to observe the aftermath.
In February 2009 two asteroids collided in a region of space beyond the orbit of Mars. The impact debris attracted the attention of scientists worldwide as this was a unique event that presented an unprecedented opportunity to observe the aftermath of such a rare cosmic collision.
Among the observers were planetary scientist Dr Stephen Lowry of the University of Kent's Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and PhD student Ryan Laird. Dr Lowry led observations of this extraordinary event using the famous 5m Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory, California, and the 3.5m New Technology Telescope in Chile.
At the same time colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany, used the OSIRIS camera system onboard the European Space Agency's Rosetta probe to provide a unique perspective on the debris, made possible by its location in interplanetary space far beyond Earth's orbit around the sun.
From these images, the MPS team was able to study the debris trail in sufficient detail to provide confirmation that this was indeed an inter-asteroid collision, and actually date the initial impact time to within a 5 day period in February 2009.
Several million large and small fragments of rock populate the so-called asteroid belt, the region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. During their journey around the sun, time and again such asteroids collide. Due to the immense expansion of the asteroid belt, most of these incidents are not discovered. Major collisions that happened thousands to millions of years ago have been inferred from the presence of diffuse bands of dust spreading across the whole sky, and families of asteroids with similar orbits. Until now, most of what scientists know about collisions between asteroids came from the study of these fossilized remains.
Dr Colin Snodgrass of MPS, who is lead author of the overall study, said: 'In comparison, it was practically yesterday, that the asteroid named P/2010 A2 bumped into a small rock with a diameter of only a few meters.' He went on to describe the importance of the team's observations as one similar to 'finding a fresh dinosaur body instead of having to figure out how they looked from fossils'.
Find out more:
- Further information about Dr Stephen Lowry.
- More about the University of Kent Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science.
- More about research in the School of Physical Sciences at the University of Kent.
- The European Space Agency's Rosetta spacecraft