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New Spin on Asteroids

Asteroids in the Koronis family intrigue scientists because they move in sync despite billions of years of collisions.
Asteroids in the Koronis family intrigue scientists because they move in sync despite billions of years of collisions.

Asteroids in the Koronis family intrigue scientists because they move in sync despite billions of years of collisions.]]Sunlight can have surprisingly important effects on the spins of small asteroids. A recent study indicates that sunlight may play a more important role in determining asteroid spin rates than collisions, which were previously thought to control asteroid spin rates.

David Vokrouhlicky (Charles University), David Nesvorny and William Bottke (both of the Southwest Research Institute) conducted the study, which showed that sunlight absorbed and reemitted over millions to billions of years can spin some asteroids so fast they could potentially break apart. In other cases, it can nearly stop them from spinning altogether. The team even noted that the effects of sunlight, combined with the gravitational tugs of the planets, can slowly force asteroid rotation poles to point in the same direction.

Until recently, researchers thought asteroid impacts controlled the rotation speed and direction of small asteroids floating in space. The unusual spin states of 10 asteroids observed by Stephen Slivan, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, however, have cast doubt on this idea. Slivan's asteroids, the first in the 15- to 25-mile-diameter range to have their spins extensively studied, are in the so-called Koronis asteroid family, a cluster of asteroid fragments produced by a highly energetic collision billions of years ago. Slivan found that not only do four of these asteroids rotate at nearly the same speed, but they also have spin axes that point in the same direction.

"The data clearly show that the spin vector alignment is real, but how they got that way has been a big puzzle," says Slivan. "I'm delighted that others find this to be an interesting problem."

"To picture just how weird these asteroids really are, imagine you were handed a box of spinning tops just as you were about to launch aboard the space shuttle. Given all the shaking produced by the launch, you would expect the tops to have different spin speeds and orientations by the time you reached orbit," says Bottke. "Instead, imagine your surprise upon opening the box if the tops were all spinning at the same speed and had their handles pointing toward the constellation Cassiopeia. Now increase the size of the tops by a factor of a million and pretend that the bouncing during launch is equivalent to billions of years of asteroid collisions. This is the strange situation we find ourselves with."

The remaining six asteroids studied by Slivan either have extremely slow spin rates, such that they rotate slower than the hour hand of a clock, or very fast spin rates, such that they are near the limit beyond which loose material on the surface of an asteroid would fly off.

"One would expect that collisions would have randomized these rotation rates. It was a big surprise to find a cluster of asteroids with such odd spin states," says Nesvorny.

To explain the spin states of Koronis family asteroids, Vokrouhlicky, Nesvorny and Bottke investigated how asteroids reflect and absorb light from the sun and reradiate this energy away as heat. They found that while the recoil force produced by the reradiation of sunlight is tiny, it can still substantially alter an asteroid's rotation rate and pole direction if it has enough time to act.

"Like the story about the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady sunlight wins the race over the fast-acting, but less effective, jolt of collisions between asteroids. Sunlight in space never stops," says Bottke, "and most asteroids have been exposed to a lot of it because of their age."

Using computer simulations, the team showed that sunlight has been slowly increasing and decreasing the rotation rates of Koronis family asteroids since they were formed 2 to 3 billion years ago. More remarkably, they found that some simulated asteroids were captured into a special spin state that forced the wobble of the asteroid's spin axis (produced by gravitational perturbations from the sun) to "beat" at the same frequency as the wobble of the asteroid's orbit (produced by gravitational perturbations from the planets). This state, called a spin-orbit resonance, can drive an asteroid's rotation rate and spin axis to particular values.

"These results give us a new way to look at the asteroids," says Vokroulicky. "It is our hope that this work will stimulate observational studies into many different regions of the main asteroid belt. We have only scratched the surface of this interesting problem."

NASA, the National Research Council and the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic funded the study.

Last Updated: 21 February 2011

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Last Updated: 21 Feb 2011