Sodium ‘fizz’ gives big asteroid Phaethon its weird comet-like appearance

As an asteroid, Phaethon is a ball composed mainly of rock, and it shouldn’t have enough ice to form the glowing fuzzy coma and tail that adorn a comet. 

And yet, when Phaethon approaches the sun, it sprouts a tail and wraps itself in a comet’s disguise. Scientists have long suspected that Phaethon’s tail came from the asteroid shedding dust. Now, researchers are pointing to a different culprit: sodium. As Phaethon approaches the sun, the theory goes, the sodium deep inside the asteroid heats up, turns into vapor and seeps through cracks in the asteroid’s surface. In the process, the sodium kicks up a storm of dust and tiny rocks that sweeps out behind it, brightening Phaethon like a comet and forming its characteristic tail.

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