Press Release

New Clue to Whether Phaeton Is Asteroid or Comet

By SpaceRef Editor
October 7, 2010
Filed under , ,

Asteroid 3200 Phaethon sometimes acts like a comet, lighting up the Earth’s night sky with meteor showers. Sometimes it’s like an asteroid, a hunk of rock floating in space.

Phaethon has baffled scientists for years, because it doesn’t behave the way they expect. But University of Central Florida professor Humberto Campins may have uncovered a major clue — Phaethon’s daddy.

Using telescopes and mathematical modeling, researchers looked at the chemical composition — the DNA fingerprint — of Phaethon and compared it to the composition of the second-largest asteroid found in the main asteroid belt located between Mars and Jupiter. They found significant similarities between Phaethon and 2 Pallas.

“Pallas and Phaethon appear to be father and son,” Campins said. “But the son doesn’t act anything like dad.”

Campins will present the findings at the 42nd annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences in Pasadena, California. The world’s largest conference for scientists who study the origin of the solar system runs from Oct. 4 to 8.

Based on the results, the team, which includes scientists from Spain, Greece and France, believes that the size of asteroids and their orbits play a role in how they act.

Phaethon’s orbit crosses the Earth’s orbit, and debris left by Phaethon in its orbit produces the Geminid meteor shower every December. In addition, Phaethon probably contains organic material that may have been part Earth before life, as we know it, developed here.

So what should we call Phaethon? Campins smiles.

“It just shows you that Mother Nature doesn’t care what we call it,” Campins said. “She will continue to amaze us, regardless of what we call her wonders.”

Text and images:

# # #

Campins is an expert on asteroids. He received national attention for an article published in Nature showing he had found evidence of water ice and organic molecules on another asteroid. This supports the theory that an asteroid may have hit Earth and brought our planet its water. He’s also worked on several science missions with NASA and the European Space Agency.

Campins holds degrees from the University of Kansas and the University of Arizona. He joined UCF in 2002 as the Provost Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy and head of the Planetary and Space Science Group.

The University of Central Florida ( is a metropolitan research university that ranks as the 3rd largest in the nation with more than 56,000 students. UCF’s first classes were offered in 1968. The university offers impressive academic and research environments that power the region’s economic development. UCF’s culture of opportunity is driven by our diversity, Orlando environment, history of entrepreneurship and our youth, relevance and energy.

SpaceRef staff editor.