Category Archives: Asteroids: Near-Earth Objects

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.

Yarkovsky

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.

YORP

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.

Validation

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.

Perspectives

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.

Indirect measurement of an asteroid’s pole

Hi there! Today, another paper on the Yarkovsky effect. You know, this non-gravitational force which acts on the asteroid, especially if it is close enough to the Sun. After reading this post, you will know how it can reveal us the obliquity of an asteroid. I present you Constraints on the near-Earth asteroid obliquity distribution from the Yarkovsky effect, by C. Tardioli, D. Farnocchia, B. Rozitis, D. Cotto-Figueiroa, S.R. Chesley, T.S. Statler & M. Vasile. This paper has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astronomy.

The way it works

Imagine you want to know the rotation of an asteroid… but you cannot measure it directly. However, you can measure the orbital motion of the asteroid, with enough accuracy to detect an effect (here Yarkovsky), which itself depends on the rotation… measuring Yarkovsky is measuring the rotation! Easy, isn’t it?

The rotation of an asteroid

As any planetary body, an asteroid has a rotational motion, which consists in spinning around one axis (actually 3, but you can safely neglect this fact), at a given rate. We can consider that we know its rotation when

  1. We know its spin rate, or its rotational period (let us assume it is constant),
  2. We know the orientation of its spin pole. We will call it the obliquity.

Usually the asteroids spin in a few hours, which is very fast since they need at least several months to complete one revolution around the Sun. The obliquity is between 0° and 180°. 0° means that the spin axis is orthogonal to the orbital plane, and that the rotation is prograde. However, 180° is the other extreme case, the spin axis is orthogonal, but with a retrograde rotation.

A direct measurement of these two quantities would consist in following the surface of the asteroid, to observe the rotation. Usually we cannot observe the surface, but sometimes we can measure the variations of the magnitude of the asteroid over time. This is directly due to the Solar light flux, which is reflected by the surface of the asteroid. Because the topography is irregular, the rotation of the asteroid induces variations of this reflection, and by analyzing the resulting lightcurve we can retrieve the rotational quantities.

Very well, but sometimes the photometric observations are not accurate enough to get these quantities. And other times, the measured rotational quantities present an ambiguity, i.e. 2 solutions, which would need an independent measurement to discriminate them, i.e. determine which of the two possible results is the right one.

It appears that the Yarkovsky effect, which is an alteration of the orbital motion of the body due to the inhomogeneity of its temperature, itself due to the Solar incident flux and the orientation of the body, i.e. its rotation, can sometimes be measured. When you know Yarkovsky, you know the obliquity. Well, it is a little more complicated than that.

Yarkovsky: A thermal effect

Since I have already presented you Yarkovsky with words, I give you now a formula.

The Yarkovsky effect, i.e. the thermal heating of the asteroid, induced a non-gravitational acceleration of its orbital motion. This acceleration reads A2/r2, where r is the distance to the Sun (remember that the asteroid orbits the Sun), and

A2 = 4/9(1-A)Φ(αf(θs)cos(ε)-f(θo)sin2(ε)),

where

  • A: albedo of the asteroid, i.e. quantity of the reflected light wrt the incident one,
  • Φ: Solar radiation,
  • α: an enhancement factor. This is a parameter…
  • ε: the obliquity (which the authors determined),
  • θs / θo: thermal parameters which depend on the spin period (s), and the orbital one (o), respectively.

If you know Yarkovsky, you know A2, since you know the distance r (you actually know where the asteroid is). If you know all the parameters except ε, then A2 gives you ε. In fact, some of the other parameters need to be estimated.

Measuring Yarkovsky

As you can see, this study is possible only for asteroids, for which you can know the Yarkovsky acceleration. Since it is a thermal effect, you can do it only for Near-Earth Asteroids, which are closer to the Sun than the Main Belt. And to measure Yarkovsky, you must simulate the orbital motion of the asteroid, which is perturbed by the main planets and Yarkovsky, with the Yarkovsky acceleration as a free parameter. A fit of the simulations to the actual astrometric observations of the asteroid gives you a number for the Yarkovsky acceleration, with a numerical uncertainty. If your number is larger than the uncertainty, then you have detected Yarkovsky. And this uncertainty mainly depends on the accuracy of your astrometric observations. It could also depend on the validity of the dynamical model, i.e. on the consideration of the forces perturbing the orbital motion, but usually the dynamical model is very accurate, since the masses and motions of the disturbing planets are very well known.
The first detection of the Yarkovsky acceleration was in 2003, when a drift of 15 km over 12 years was announced for the asteroid 6489 Golevka.

So, you have now a list of asteroids, with their Yarkovsky accelerations. The authors worked with a final dataset of 125 asteroids.

So many retrograde asteroids

The authors tried to fit a distribution of the obliquities of these asteroids. The best fit, i.e. which reduces the distance between the resulting obliquities and the Yarkovsky acceleration that they would have produced, is obtained from a quadratic model, i.e. 1.12 cos2(ε)-0.32 cos(ε)+0.13, which is represented below.

Distribution of the asteroids with respect to their obliquity.
Distribution of the asteroids with respect to their obliquity.

What you see is the number of asteroids with respect to their obliquity. The 2 maxima at 0° and 180° mean that most of the asteroids spin about an axis, which is almost orthogonal to their orbital plane. From their relative heights, it appears that there about twice more retrograde asteroids than prograde ones. This is consistent with previous studies, these obliquities actually being a consequence of the YORP effect, which is the influence of Yarkovsky on the rotation.

The study and its authors

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.

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.

Summary

  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

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.

The activity of the comet C/2015 ER61

Hi there! Today’s post is on the comet C/2015 ER61. Behind this weird name is a small object orbiting the Sun on a highly elongated orbit, which currently shows us a tail. The associated study is Beginning of activity in long-period comet C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS), by Karen J. Meech, Charles A. Schambeau, Kya Sorli, Jan T. Kleyna, Marco Micheli, James Bauer, Larry Denneau, Jacqueline V. Keane, Elizabeth Toller, Richard Wainscoat, Olivier Hainaut, Bhuwan Bhatt, Devendra Sahu, Bin Yang, Emily Kramer and Gene Magnier. It has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

C/2015 ER61‘s facts

This comet was discovered two years ago, in March 2015, by the telescope Pan-STARRS 1, located on the Haleakalā, Hawai’i. Its distance to the Sun was then 8.44 Astronomical Units, its absolute magnitude about 12, and no tail was visible. As such, it was supposed to be a Manx object, a Manx being a tailless cat. A Manx object would be a comet, which had no activity anymore, as if the lighter elements had already gone.

From its magnitude, it was guessed that its radius was about 10 km. Its apparent lack of activity triggered enough interest for the object to be followed, this in particularly permitted to determine its orbit, and showed that it had a huge eccentricity, i.e. some 0.998. When the eccentricity reaches 1, then the orbit is parabolic, so the orbit of C/2015 ER61 is almost parabolic. Further observations showed the beginning of a period of activity, proving that C/2015 ER61 (I would appreciate a funnier nickname…) is actually not a Manx. This period is not done yet, and the activity is actually increasing, as the comet is approaching the Sun. At its smallest distance, i.e. the perihelion, its distance to the Sun is 1.04 AU, i.e. it almost crosses the orbit of the Earth (don’t worry, I said “almost”). So, observing this comet today reveals a tail.

We are actually pretty lucky to be able to observe it, since its orbital period is some 10,000 years. This comet is considered to belong to the Oort cloud, which is a reservoir of comets at the edge of our Solar System.

Cometary outgassing

Since the comet model by Fred L. Whipple, published between 1950 and 1955, a comet is seen as a kind of dirty snowball, with a nucleus, and icy elements, which tend to sublimate when approaching the Sun, because of the elevation of the temperature. This hypothesis was confirmed in 1986 when we were visited by the well-known comet 1P/Halley (you know, Halley’s comet).
The idea is this: you have some water ice, some CO, some CO2, trapped on the comet. When it is warm enough, it sublimates.

But the intensity of the sublimation depends on several parameters:

  • the thermal inertia of the comet: how does the temperature elevate?
  • its albedo: which fraction of the incident Solar light flux is reflected?
  • its density
  • the quantity of elements, which are likely to be sublimated
  • their depth: if they are not at the surface, the heat needs to be conducted deep enough for them to sublimate
  • the distance to the Sun (of course)
  • etc.

This means that observing and measuring this outgassing gives some physical properties of the comet.

The observation facilities

To conduct this study, several observation facilities were used:

  • Pan-STARRS1 (PS1): This stands for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. This is a 1.8m wide-field telescope,
  • Gemini North: this is a 8.19 m telescope, which is based in Hawai’i. It has a twin brother, Gemini South, which is based in Chile,
  • Canada-France-Hawai’i Telescope (CFHT): this 3.58m telescope is part of the Mauna Kea Observatory. For this study, the MegaPrime/Megacam wide-field imager was used, which gives of fied of view of 1°,
  • ATLAS: (for Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System). This will be a network of two 0.5m-telescopes, both based in Hawai’i. At this time, only the ATLAS-Haleakalā has begun full operation,
  • Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT): this is a 2.01 m optical-infrared telescope, which is part of the Indian Astronomical Observatory, which stands on Mount Saraswati, Digpa-ratsa Ri, Hanle, India,
  • Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE): this is an infrared space telescope, on a Sun-synchronous polar orbit. It is used in the program NEOWISE, NEO standing for Near-Earth Objects.

The diversity of observation facilities explains the numbers of authors signing this study. The observations span from February 2014 to February 2017, which means that there are pre-discovery observations. It is always easier to find an object when you know where it is, which permitted to find C/2015 ER61 on images, which were taken before its discovery.

Results

These observations (see the Figure) has shown a variation of the magnitude, which could be expected since the comet approached the Earth, but too large to be explained by its trajectory. Actually, it is enhanced by the activity of the comet, more precisely by the sublimation of CO and CO2, starting in early 2015.

The measured apparent magnitude of the comet, with respect to the date and the distance to the Sun. We can see that the comet is brighter when closer to the Sun, because of the outgassing. The measurements have some uncertainties, which are not represented here. This figure is drawn for the Tab.1 Observation Log of the paper.

The authors modeled the warming of the comet and the sublimation of the elements, in using the well-known heat equation. The observed tail suggests a radius of the nucleus of about 9 km, which is consistent with previous guesses. Moreover, they suggest that the CO2 is present at a depth of about 0.4 m. If it were present at the surface, then sublimation would have been observed even when the comet was 20 AU away from the Sun.

The closest approach of the comet with the Earth was on April 4, and with the Sun on May 10, which would result in a peak of activity… probably with some delay, please give the comet a chance to warm!

To know more

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