Tag Archives: Yarkovsky

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)),


  • 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

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