An asteroid pair

Hi there! Today I present you the study of an asteroid pair. Not a binary, a pair. A binary asteroid is a couple of asteroids which are gravitationally bound, while in pair, the asteroids are just neighbors, they do not live together… but have. The study is entitled Detailed analysis of the asteroid pair (6070) Rheinland and (54287) 2001 NQ8, by Vokrouhlický et al., and it has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

Asteroid pairs

I have presented asteroid families in a previous post. These are groups of asteroids which present common dynamical and physical properties. They can be in particular identified from the clustering of their proper elements, i.e. you express their orbital elements (semimajor axis, eccentricity, inclination, pericentre, …), you treat them properly so as to get rid off the gravitational disturbance of the planets, and you see that some of these bodies tend to group. This suggests that they constitute a collisional family, i.e. they were a unique body in the past, which has been destroyed by collisions.
An asteroid pair is something slightly different, since these are two bodies which present dynamical similarities in their osculating elements, i.e. before denoising them from the gravitational attraction of the planets. Of course, they would present similarities in their proper elements as well, but the fact that similarities can be detected in the osculating elements means that they are even closer than a family, i.e. the separation occurred later. Families younger than 1 Myr (1 million of years) are considered to be very young; the pair I present you today is much younger than that. How much? You have to read me before.
A pair suggests that only two bodies are involved. This suggests a non-collisional origin, more particularly an asteroid fission.

Asteroid fission

Imagine an asteroid with a very fast rotation. A rotation so fast that it would split the asteroid. We would then have two components, which would be gravitationally bound, and evolving… Depending on the energy involved, it could remain a stable binary asteroid, a secondary fission might occur, the two or three components may migrate away from each other… and in that case we would pair asteroid with very close elements of their heliocentric orbits.
It is thought that the YORP (Yarkovsky – O’Keefe – Radzievskii – Paddack) could trigger this rotational fission. This is a thermic effect which alter the rotation, and in some cases, in particular when the satellite has an irregular shape, it could accelerate it. Until fission.
Thermic effects are particularly efficient when the Sun is close, which means that NEA (Near Earth Asteroids) are more likely to be destroyed by this process than Main Belt asteroids. Here, we deal with Main Belt asteroids.

The pair 6070-54827 (Rheinland – 2001 NQ8)

The following table present properties of Rheinland and 2001 NQ8. The orbital elements are at Epoch 2458000.5, i.e. September 4th 2017. They come from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

(6070) Rheinland (54827) 2001 NQ8
Semimajor axis (AU) 2.3874015732216 2.387149297807496
Eccentricity 0.2114524962733347 0.211262507795103
Inclination 3.129675305535938° 3.128927421642917°
Node 83.94746016534368° 83.97704257098502°
Pericentre 292.7043398319871° 292.4915004062336°
Orbital period 1347.369277588708 d (3.69 y) 1347.155719572348 d (3.69 y)
Magnitude 13.8 15.5
Discovery 1991 2001

Beside their magnitudes, i.e. Rheinland is much brighter than 2001 NQ8, this is why it was discovered 10 years earlier, we can see that all the slow orbital elements (i.e. all of them, except the longitude) are very close, which strongly suggests they shared the same orbit. Not only their orbits have the same shape, but they also have the same orientation.

Shapes and rotations from lightcurves

A useful tool for determining the rotation and shape of an asteroid is the lightcurve. The object reflects the incident Solar light, and the way it reflects it will tell us something on its location, its shape, and its orientation. You can imagine that the surfaces of these bodies are not exclusively composed of smooth terrain, and irregularities (impact basins, mountains,…) will result in a different Solar flux, which also depends on the phase, i.e. the angle between the normale of the surface and the asteroid – Sun direction… i.e. depends whether you see the Sun at the zenith or close to the horizon. This is why recording the light from the asteroid at different dates tell us something. You can see below an example of lightcurve for 2001 NQ8.

Example of lightcurve for 2001 NQ8, observed by Vokrouhlický et al.

Recording such a lightcurve is not an easy task, since the photometric measurements should be denoised, otherwise you cannot compare them and interpret the lightcurve. You have to compensate for the variations of the luminosity of the sky during the observation (how far is the Moon?), of the thickness of the atmosphere (are we close to the horizon?), of the heterogeneity of the CCD sensors (you can compensate that in measuring the response of a uniform surface). And the weather should be good enough.

Once you have done that, you get a lightcurve alike the one above. We can see 3 maxima and 2 minima. Then the whole set of lightcurves is put into a computational machinery which will give you the parameters that best match the observations, i.e. periods of rotation, orientation of the spin pole at a given date, and shape… or at least a diameter. In this study, the authors already had the informations for Rheinland but confirmed them with new observations, and produced the diameter and rotation parameters for 2001 NQ8. And here are the results:

(6070) Rheinland (54827) 2001 NQ8
Diameter (km) 4.4 ± 0.6 2.2 ± 0.3
Spin period (h) 4.2737137 ± 0.0000005 5.877186 ± 0.000002
Spin pole (124°,-87°) (72°,-49°) or (242°,-46°)

We can see rapid rotation periods, as it is often the case for asteroids. The locations of the poles mean that their rotations
are retrograde, with respect to their orbital motions. Moreover, two solutions best match the pole of 2001 NQ8.

Dating the fission

The other aspect of this study is a numerical simulation of the orbital motion of these two objects, backward in time, to date their separation. Actually, the authors considered 5,000 clones of each of the two objects, to make their results statistically relevant.
They not only considered the gravitational interactions with other objects of the Solar System, but also the Yarkovsky effect, i.e. a thermal pull due to the Sun, which depends on the reflectivity of the asteroids, and favors their separation. For that, they propose new equations implementing this effect. They also simulated the variations of the spin pole orientation, since it affects the thermal acceleration.

And here is the result: the fission probably occurred 16,340 ± 40 years ago.


Why doing that? Because what we see is the outcome of an asteroid fission, which occurred recently. The authors honestly admit that this result could be refined in the future, depending on

  • Possible future measurements of the Yarkovsky acceleration of one or two of these bodies,
  • The consideration of the mutual interactions between Rheinland and 2001 NQ8,
  • Refinements of the presented measurements,
  • Discovery of a third member?

To date the fission, they dated a close approach between these two bodies. They also investigated the possibility that that
close approach, some 16,000 years from now, could have not been the right one, and that the fission could have been much older. For that, they ran long-term simulations, which suggest that older close approaches should have been less close: if the pair were older, Yarkovsky would have separated it more.

To know more

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *