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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, March 6, 2014

What or Who Broke Up Asteroid P/2013 R3?

The Hubble Space Telescope has detected an unusual asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. What is strange about this asteroid is that it seems to be disintegrating. Pictures of the changes in the asteroid are shown below.

NASA/ESA -- click to expand

It can be seen that the top light changes into two lights, and the bottom light changes into three lights. What could cause this?

Scientists say that this disintegration was not caused by a collision. If a collision had been a cause, the pieces would have rapidly separated. But the series of images shows a very slow separation lasting several months.

One scientist named David Jewitt has advanced a theory postulating that the asteroid was a very loosely connected mass, and that it is regular sunlight that is pushing the pieces apart. Anyone familiar with the concept of “solar sail” space vehicles knows that sunlight can produce a very small amount of pressure. The large very thin sails of a solar sail spacecraft are designed to trap that pressure, causing a spacecraft to accelerate. 

A solar sail

But this “sunlight broke up the asteroid” theory seems a bit farfetched. While sunlight might produce an appreciable pressure on a very large thin sail the size of a football field, enough to accelerate a very small spacecraft, it is rather doubtful that it would provide pressure to cause asteroids to disintegrate.

Jewitt speculates here that the asteroid may be breaking up due to a sunlight-related process that has taken between 100,000 and a million years. But there's a little “chronological coincidence” problem with that, which is: why would we be lucky enough to be observing the climax (over a few months) of a process that took so incredibly long? Wouldn't such a process have been 99.9999% more likely to have occurred outside of the lifespan of the Hubble Space Telescope? This is not a decisive objection, but it is one that makes the “sunlight disruption” idea seem rather doubtful.

Let me suggest an alternate hypothesis, one that is unlikely but just barely imaginable. The hypothesis is that the disintegration of this asteroid is somehow related to extraterrestrial visitors.

Imagine if extraterrestrials were to visit our solar system, and begin a discreet period of observation of our planet. Their ship or ships might be orbiting somewhere away from Earth. They might send occasional probes to observe our planet more closely.

After a while, they might decide they need more raw materials, possibly to build additional spacecraft, or to build more places for their kind to live. Getting such raw materials from our planet would be likely to attract attention, and would not be cost effective because of the difficulty of lifting into orbit any raw materials they acquired from our planet. It would be much easier for extraterrestrial visitors to get the raw materials from the asteroid belt.

As far as we know, it is fantastically difficult and expensive to travel between stars. The cost of sending every kilogram to another star would be incredibly high. So it has long been pointed out that a wise approach might be to send a minimal mission with a small payload, and then to use that mission to leverage resources available in another solar system. So, for example, if we wanted to colonize a planet revolving around Alpha Centauri B, we might send a small craft, and then have that craft (or robots from that craft) create more and more structures (or robots) in that distant solar system, using the resources available in that solar system.

An expedition from another solar system to our solar system might be taking the same approach. Breaking up a few asteroids and using their resources might be part of such a plan. Scientists think asteroids are rich in metals.

Another possibility is that the “one light breaking up into multiple lights” phenomenon observed in the photos above is somehow related to similar type of observations reported during UFO sightings. People who report UFO sightings sometimes say that they saw a single bright light in the sky, which broke up into two different lights or three different lights. You can see details of such sightings here, here, here, and here.

This page below shows a video clip of a light in the sky breaking up into two lights and then three lights.

Strange indeed that the Hubble Space Telescope should have witnessed something similar to what people have seen in our skies – a phenomenon of one light in the sky seeming to break up to become several lights. Is this just coincidence, or could they be the same mysterious phenomenon?