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Asteroid Murder Mystery Solved

18 February 2016 12:39


A new study has solved what many call the “mystery” of missing asteroids, debunking the theory that the objects typically meet their end by crashing into the Sun.

Instead of the dramatic ending many of us had once believed was the case, it appears to be more of a slow burn, according to researchers from the United States, the Czech Republic, Finland, and France.

The researchers had originally planned to create advanced model of the near-earth-object, or NEO population for further studies on asteroids and space missions. Properties of close to 9,000 NEOs were used in creating the advanced model, which proved quite challenging when it came to figuring out which asteroids could be spotted.

But as they discovered, the so-called missing asteroids were found mainly in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, with a good few located in the vicinity of Earth, Venus, and Mercury. However, the area near the Sun yielded a surprisingly low number of asteroids, with just one per ten that were expected within 10 solar diameters of the Sun.

Considering the disparity between the NEO population model and the researchers’ findings, the researchers realized the solution to the mystery was to tweak the assumptions they made heading into the study.

University of Helsinki researcher Mikael Granvik came up with a new theory, positing that the model would match their findings if NEOs were destroyed before they reached the Sun, but long before they’d actually collide into it. With this new theory taken into account, there were far more similarities between the model and the researchers’ observed NEO population.

“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,” said Robert Jedicke of the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy.

“We really steer away from speculating too much about the mechanisms by which they are disappearing,” he continued. “What our data shows is there is a deficit of objects close to the sun, and the fact that we can see that deficit means they have to disappear quite rapidly.”

In addition, the researchers believe that their new discovery could also help solve another mystery – meteor showers without a parent object. According to their findings, bits and pieces of debris from an exploded asteroid may burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in the shooting stars that highlight meteor showers.

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