Equatorial cavities due to fissions

Hi there! Today I present you a theoretical study, which explains why some asteroids present cavities in their equatorial plane. The related paper, Equatorial cavities on asteroids, an evidence of fission events, by Simon Tardivel, Paul Sánchez & Daniel J. Scheeres, has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

When you see a cavity, i.e. a hole at the surface of a planetary, you… OK, I usually assume it is due to an impact. Here we have another explanation, which is that it spun so fast that it ejected some material. These cavities have been observed on the two NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) 2008 EV5 and 2000 DP107 α,for which the authors describe the mechanism.

The 2 asteroids involved

The following table gives you orbital and physical data relevant to these two bodies:

2008 EV5 2000 DP107 α
Semimajor axis 0.958 AU 1.365 AU
Eccentricity 0.083 0.377
Inclination 7.437° 8.672°
Orbital period 343 d 583 d
Spin period 3.725 h 2.775 h
Diameter 450 m 950 m

And you can see the shape model of 2008 EV5 on this video, from James Richardson:

They both are small bodies, which orbit in the vicinity of the Earth, and they spin fast. You cannot see that 2000 DP 107 α has a small companion, so this is the largest component (the primary) of a binary asteroid. Their proximity to the Earth made possible the acquisition of enough radar data to model their shapes. We know that they are top-shaped asteroid, i.e. they can be seen as two cones joined by their base, giving an equatorial ridge. Moreover, they both have an equatorial cavity, of diameters 160 and 400 m, and depths 20 and 60 meters, respectively. The authors estimate that given the numbers of potential projectiles in the NEO population, the odds are very small, i.e. one chance over 600, that these two craters are both consequences of impacts. Such an impact should have occurred during the last millions of years, otherwise the craters would have relaxed. This is why it must be the signature of another mechanism, here fission is proposed.

To have fission, you must spin fast enough, and this fast spin cannot be primordial, otherwise the asteroid would not have formed. So, something has accelerated the spin. This something is YORP, for Yarkovsky-O’Keefe-Radzievskii-Paddack.

Yarkovsky and YORP

When you are close enough to the Sun, the side facing the Sun warms, and then radiates in cooling. This is the Yarkovsky effect, which is a non-gravitational force, which affect the orbit of a small body. When you have an irregular shape, which is common among asteroids (you need to reach a critical size > 100 km to be pretty spherical), your response to the Sun light may be the one of a windmill to the wind. And your spin accelerates. This is the YORP effect.

These Yarkovsky and YORP effects have actually been measured in the NEO population.

Asteroid fission

When you spin fast enough, you just split. This is easy to figure out: the shape of a planetary body is a balance between its own gravity, its spin, and if applicable the tidal action of a large perturber. For our asteroids, we can neglect this last effect. So, we have a balance between the own gravity, which tends to preserve the asteroid, and the centrifugal force, which tends to destroy it. When you accelerate the rotation, you endanger the body. But it actually does not explode, since once some material is ejected, enough angular momentum is lost, and the two newly created bodies may survive. This process of fission is assumed to be the main cause of the formation of binaries in the NEO population.
2000 DP107 α belongs to a binary, while 2008 EV5 does not. But that does not mean that it did not experience fission, since the ejecta may not have aggregated, or the formed binary may not have survived as a binary.

Now, let us see how this process created an equatorial cavity.

Ejecting a protrusion

The author imagined that there was initially a mass filling the cavity. This mass would have had the same density as the remaining body, and they considered its size to be a free parameter. They assumed the smallest possible mass to exactly fill the cavity, the other options creating protrusion. As a consequence, the radius of the asteroid would have been larger at that very place, while it is smaller now. And this is where it is getting very interesting.

In accelerating the rotation of the asteroid, you move the surface limit, which would correspond to the balance between gravitation and spin. More exactly, you diminish its radius, until it reaches the surface of the asteroid… the first contact being at the protrusion. The balance being different whether you are inside or outside the asteroid, this limit surface would go deeper at the location of the protrusion, permitting the ejection of the mass which lies outside, and thus creating an equatorial cavity. Easy, isn’t it?

But this raises another question: this would mean that the cohesion at the equatorial plane is not very strong, and weaker than expected for an asteroid. How to solve this paradox? Thanks to kinetic sieving!

The kinetic sieving

The authors simulated a phenomenon that is known by geologist as reverse grading. In granular avalanches, the separation of particles occurs according to size, involving that the largest particles are expelled where the spin is faster, i.e. at the equator, which would result in a lowest tensile strength, which would itself facilitate the ejection of the mass, and create an equatorial cavity. This phenomenon has been simulated, but not observed yet. So, this is a prediction which should be tested by future space missions.

By the way, the size of the companion of 2000 DP107 α is consistent with a protruder of height 60m.


  1. Initial state: a Near-Earth Object, with irregular shape. Probably spins fast enough to be top-shaped, i.e. having an equatorial ridge,
  2. YORP accelerates the rotation, favoring the accumulation of large particles at the equator, while tropics are more sandy,
  3. A mass is ejected at the equator, leaving a cavity,
  4. You get a binary, which may survive or not.

More will be known in the next future, thanks to the space mission Osiris-REx, which will visit the asteroid (101955) Bennu in 2018 and return samples to the Earth in 2023. Does it have sandy tropics?

The Near-Earth Asteroid Bennu. © NASA.
The Near-Earth Asteroid Bennu. © NASA.

The study and the authors

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