Weird Science Weekly: Freaky new asteroid looks like a spinning lawn sprinkler

Geekquinox

Weird science happens every day, all around us. This week, we have four of the weirdest examples, including a spinning asteroid with six comet-like tails, robots that run on urine, social causes getting help from sad faces, and the cutest video about microbes you'll probably ever see.

Newly-discovered asteroid sports six comet-like tails

The Hubble Space Telescope spotted a new asteroid recently, but it's unlike any that scientists have seen before — with streamers of debris being sprayed around it as the asteroid rotates, like water from a lawn sprinkler.

Asteroid P/2013 P5 orbits the sun inside the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers first noticed this 400 metre-wide asteroid in August of this year, as a 'fuzzy' object in their telescopes. However, it wasn't until two weeks later, when they aimed the powerful Hubble Space Telescope at it, that they were able to see why it was so 'fuzzy'. Six different tails of debris were streaming off of the asteroid, and another image of it taken two weeks after that showed that the orientation of the trails had completely changed, meaning that the asteroid was spinning.

Based on the rate that the dust is flying off in these streamers, the team used a model to determine that they were caused by six different events, between the middle of April and the beginning of September. Since there were no large blasts of dust seen blowing off the asteroid for any of these events, the scientists believe that the streamers weren't caused by impacts, but instead were formed as light and heat from the sun caused the asteroid to start spinning. With further observations, they can see if these streamers are coming off the asteroid's equator, which would be evidence of what's known as 'rotational breakup'.

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Future robots could be powered with pee

We've all seen science fiction stories where robots use humans as a kind of inexhaustible fuel source, and usually those stories don't end well for the humans involved. However, science reality has our back, letting us escape the horrible fate while still letting the robots get their power resources directly from a human source. It's not our body heat or even the electricity produced by our nervous system that's going to fuel these robots, though. It's our urine.

This video, featuring Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos from the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, shows the setup of these microbial cells and how much power they can produce:

"In the future, we hope the robots might be used in city environments for remote sensing," study researcher Peter Walters told LiveScience. "It could refuel from public lavatories, or urinals."

Sad faces make for good social campaigns

It seems that guilting us into doing the right thing is the path to success for social campaigning, but it's especially effective when a human face is put on the issue.

It doesn't matter what it is, from a garbage can meant only for food waste or a lightbulb that wastes electricity if it's left on after we've gone out of the room, putting a sad face on that objects makes us want to comply.

That's the findings of researchers from Hanyang University in South Korea, and Wilfred Laurier University and the University of Toronto Scarborough, who published a paper on it this week in the journal Psychological Science.

"When we see an entity feeling pain we would feel guilty if we could have done something to prevent it," said Pankaj Aggarwal, the study co-author from the University of Toronto Scarborough, according to Popular Science. "We also wouldn't want that burden on ourselves so we would act accordingly to help that entity."

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NPR creates the cutest lesson about microbes ever

The 'human microbiome' is the collection of microbes that live on and inside our bodies, and to help explain how it works, National Public Radio has produced this great video from artist Benjamin Arthur and narrated by NPR's Rob Stein:

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Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Images courtesy: NASA/Hubble Space Telescope, Ahn et al.)

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