The comet 67P / Churyumov - Gerasimenko, seen by Rosetta. © ESA

Rough terrains spin up asteroids

Hi there! If you follow me, you have already heard of the Yarkovsky effect, or even of the YORP, which are non-gravitational forces affecting the dynamics of Near-Earth Asteroids. Today I tell you about the TYORP, i.e. the Tangential YORP. This is the opportunity for me to present you Analytic model for Tangential YORP, by Oleksiy Golubov. This study has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal. The author meets the challenge to derive an analytical formula for the thermal pressure acting on the irregular regolith of an asteroid. Doing it requires to master the physics and make some sound approximations, following him tells us many things on the Tangential YORP.

From Yarkovsky to TYORP

When we address the dynamics of Near-Earth Asteroids, we must consider the proximity of the Sun. This proximity involves thermal effects, which significantly affect the dynamics of such small bodies. In other words, the dynamics is not ruled by the gravitation only. The main effect is the Yarkovsky effects, and its derivatives.


The Sun heats the surface of the asteroid which faces it. When this surface element does not face the Sun anymore, because of the rotation of the asteroid, it cools, and radiates some energy. This effect translates into a secular drift in the orbit, which is known as the Yarkovsky effect. This Yarkovsky effect has been directly measured for some asteroids, in comparing the simulated orbit from a purely gravitational simulation, with the astrometric observations of the objects. Moreover, long-term studies have shown that the Yarkovsky effect explains the spreading of some dynamical families, i.e. asteroids originating from a single progenitor. In that sense, observing their current locations proves the reality of the Yarkovsky effect.
When the asteroid has an irregular shape, which is common, the thermal effect affects the rotation as well.


Cooling a surface element which has been previously heated by the Sun involves a loss of energy, which depends on the surface itself. This loss of energy affects the rotational dynamics, which is also affected by the heating of some surface. But for an irregular shaped body, the loss and gain of energy does not exactly balance, and the result is an asteroid which spins up, like a windmill. In some cases, it can even fission the body (see here). This effect is called YORP, for Yarkovsky-O’Keefe–Radzievskii–Paddack.

This is a large-scale effect, in the sense that it depends on the shape of the asteroid as a whole. Actually, the surface of an asteroid is regolith, it can have boulders… i.e. high-frequency irregularities, which thus will be heated differently, and contribute to YORP… This contribution is known as Tangential YORP, or TYORP.

Modeling the physics

When you heat a boulder from the Sun, you create an inhomogeneous elevation of temperature, which can be modeled numerically, with finite elements. For an analytical treatment, you cannot be that accurate. This drove the author to split the boulder into two sides, the eastern and the western sides, both being assumed to have an homogeneous temperature. Hence, two temperatures for the boulder. Then the author wrote down a heat conduction equation, which says that the total heat energy increase in a given volume is equal to the sum of the heat conduction into this volume, the direct solar heat absorbed by its open surface, and the negative heat emitted by the open surface (which radiates).

These numbers depend on

  • the heat capacity of the asteroid,
  • its density,
  • its heat conductivity,
  • its albedo, i.e. its capacity to reflect the incident Solar light,
  • its emissivity, which characterizes the radiated energy,
  • the incident Solar light,
  • the time.

The time is critical since a surface will heat as long it is exposed to the Sun. In the calculations, it involves the spin frequency. After manipulation of these equations, the author obtains an analytical formula for the TYORP pressure, which depends on these parameters.

A perturbative treatment

In the process of solving the equations, the author wrote the eastern and western temperatures as sums of periodic sinusoidal solutions. The basic assumption, which seems to make sense, is that these two quantities are periodic, the period being the rotation period, P, of the asteroid. This implicitly assumes that the asteroid rotates around only one axis, which is a reasonable assumption for a general treatment of the problem.
As a result, the author expects these two temperatures to be the sum of sines and cosines of periods P/n, P being an integer. For n=1, you have a variation of period P, i.e. a diurnal variation. For n = 2, you have a semi-diurnal one, etc.

The perturbative treatment of the problem consists in improving the solution in iterating it, first in expressing only one term, i.e. the diurnal one, then in using the result to derive the second term, etc. This assumes that these different terms have amplitudes, which efficiently converge to 0, i.e. the semi-diurnal effect is supposed to be negligible with respect to the diurnal one, but very large with respect to the third-diurnal, etc. Writing down the solution under such a form is called Fourier decomposition.

The author says honestly that he did not check this convergence while solving the equation. However, he successfully tested the validity of his obtained solution, which means that the resolution method is appropriate.


The author is active since many years on the (T)YORP issue, and has modeled it numerically in a recent past. So, validating his analytical formula consisted in confronting it with his numerical results.

He particularly confronted the two results in the cases of a wall, a half buried spherical boulder, and a wave in the regolith, with respect to physical characteristics of the material, i.e. dimension and thermic properties. Even though visible differences, the approximation is pretty good, validating the methodology.

This allowed then the author to derive an analytical formula of the TYORP pressure on a while regolith, which is composed of boulders, which sizes are distributed following a power law.


This is the first analytical formula for the TYORP, and I am impressed by the author’s achievement. We can expect in the future that this law (should we call it the Golubov law?) would be a reference to characterize the thermic properties of an asteroid. In other words, future measurements of the TYORP effect could give the thermic properties, thanks to this law. This is just a possibility, which depends on the reception of this study by the scientific community, and on future studies as well.

The study and its author

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.

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