Fizzing Sodium Could Explain Asteroid Phaethon’s Cometlike Activity

This illustration depicts asteroid Phaethon being heated by the Sun. The asteroid’s surface gets so hot that sodium inside Phaethon’s rock may vaporize and vent into space, causing it to brighten like a comet and dislodge small pieces of rocky debris. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/IPAC)

Models and lab tests suggest the asteroid could be venting sodium vapor as it orbits close to the Sun, explaining its increase in brightness.

PASADENA, Calif. (NASA PR) — As a comet zooms through the inner solar system, the Sun heats it, causing ices below the surface to vaporize into space. The venting vapor dislodges dust and rock, and the gas creates a bright tail that can extend millions of miles from the nucleus like an ethereal veil.