3200 Phaeton, the mysterious blue-rock comet that creates the Geminid meteor shower every year, has been discussed this week in a press conference. More precisely, the comet’s dust trail was the subject of astronomers’ focus.
The meteors in yearly showers like the Geminid are the outcome of the rendezvous of our planets with traces of dust in space, mainly ejected by comets. Dust enters Earth’s atmosphere and evaporates, generating light rays we see as meteors or shooting stars.
Peculiar Asteroid With Comet Features
Last week, scientists from the Naval Research Laboratory in the U.S. held a press conference to talk about an actual image of a dust trail left behind by the asteroid that created the Geminid meteor shower. The asteroid is known as 3200 Phaethon; a cosmic object astronomers pay incredible attention to.
Karl Battams, a computational scientist, working for the Naval Research Lab’s Space Science Division has discussed the new image at the press conference, which comes from a camera built in the Lab, known as WISPR.
Battams said: “Something catastrophic happened to Phaethon a couple of thousand years ago and created the Geminid meteor shower. There’s no way the asteroid is anywhere near active enough when it is near the Sun to produce the mass of dust we are seeing.”
3200 Phaethon has a rather peculiar color for an asteroid. The majority of asteroids are dull grey to red, contingent on the kind of material they held on the surface. However, 3200 Phaethon is blue. Blue asteroids are known but are only existing in a small fraction among all known asteroids.
Another odd feature of 3200 Phaethon is its orbit. While comets usually have a more oval orbit, asteroid orbits are more spherical; but 3200 Phaethon’s orbit is incredibly elongated, similar to some comets’ orbit.
Not a Threat, At Least For Now
3200 Phaethon’s orbit passes through Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury and takes it closer to the Sun than any other known asteroid. At the closest, 3200 Phaethon is only about 13 million miles (20.9 million kilometers) from our Sun.
The asteroid releases a small dust tail when it is at its closest to the Sun, according to astronomers. Scientists have argued that it is likely that the Sun’s heat causes cracks, similar to dry riverbed fractures in the heat.
3200 Phaethon was the first asteroid to be identified by a spacecraft. Astronomers Simon F. Green and John K. Davies spotted it while analyzing the Infrared Astronomical Satellite data for traveling cosmic objects. Another astronomer, Charles T. Kowal, confirmed it visually and argued that it was an asteroid-like in looks. The cosmic body received its name two years after it was detected, back in 1983.
3200 Phaethon is labeled as a potentially dangerous asteroid, which means it is a threat to all cosmic bodies. The asteroid is pretty massive, measuring about 3 miles (5 kilometers) wide, and it is known as being periodically approaching our planet at close distances.
The 2017 close approach made this object travel at approximately 26 times more close to Earth than the Moon‘s distance. Researchers haven’t predicted a collision with 3200 Phaethon, at least not in the foreseeable future.