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UA grad student unravels space mystery

TUCSON – Every December the Geminids meteor shower streaks across the sky. However, the asteroid at the center of it all – Phaethon – has remained a mystery.

That is until University of Arizona graduate student Teddy Kareta started studying Phaethon.

“People have argued about what it was made of for years and about what you might expect it,” said Kareta. “We feel like we might have actually solved that and that’s really cool.” 

Kareta says he and his research team studied Phaethon using telescopes in Arizona and Hawaii.

They learned that not only is Phaethon an extremely rare blue-colored asteroid, but that it appears to uniform. Cooked evenly on all sides during close passes to the sun.

“When you get so close to the sun, weird things start to happen and for certain things, they turn blue,” said Kareta. “That’s sort of the idea we used to back out what it might be made out of. There are meteorites on the ground that you could say ‘Maybe this is what Phaethon looked like before it got torched.'” 

Kareta said astronomers will now be able to use his data to find out more about where Phaethon came from, how Earth’s oceans got here and how we can survive.

“The Earth has these gigantic oceans and there is an open question of where did that water come from. For a long time, people thought comets are full of ice. If they ever hit the Earth in the past, that’s a great way to get water on the Earth,” said Kareta. “Now people are starting to realize that asteroids might have tons of water too. So understanding something about Phaethon, maybe we can branch out and find out something about what the other asteroids – especially the ones that might impact us – are like.”

Nick VinZant

Nick VinZant

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