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NEA rotations and binaries

  • Petr Pravec (a1), A. W. Harris (a2) and B. D. Warner (a3)

Of the nearly 3900 near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) known as of June 2006, 325 have estimated rotation periods, with most of those determined by lightcurve analysis led by a few dedicated programs. NEAs with diameters down to 10 meters have been sampled. Observed spin distribution shows a major changing point around diameter of 200 meters. Larger NEAs show a barrier against spins faster than 11 d−1 (period about 2.2 h) that shifts to slower rates (longer periods) with increasing lightcurve amplitude (i.e., with increasing equatorial elongation). The spin barrier is interpreted as a critical spin rate for bodies in a gravity regime; NEAs larger than 200 meters are predominantly bodies with tensile strength too low to withstand a centrifugal acceleration for rotation faster than the critical spin rate. The cohesionless spin barrier disappears at sizes less than 200 meters where most objects rotate too fast to be held together by self-gravitation only, so a cohesion is implied in the smaller NEAs.

The distribution of NEA spin rates in the cohesionless size range (D0.2 km) is highly non-Maxwellian, suggesting that mechanisms other than just collisions have been at work. There is a pile up just in front of the barrier, at periods 2–3 h. It may be related to a spin up mechanism crowding asteroids to the barrier. An excess of slow rotators is observed at periods longer than 30 hours. A spin-down mechanism has no obvious lower limit on spin rate; periods as long as tens of days have been observed.

Most NEAs appear to be in their basic spin states with rotation around principal axis with maximum moment of inertia. Tumbling objects (i.e., bodies in excited, non-principal axis rotation) are present and actually predominate among slow rotators with estimated damping timescales longer than the age of the solar system. A few tumblers observed among fast rotating coherent objects appear to be either more rigid or younger than the larger (cohesionless) tumblers.

An abundant population of binary systems has been found among NEAs. The fraction of binaries among NEAs larger than 0.3 km has been estimated to be 15 ± 4%. Primaries of binary systems concentrate at fast spin rates (periods 2–3 h) and low amplitudes, i.e., they lie just below the cohesionless spin barrier. The total angular momentum content in binary systems suggests that they formed from parent bodies spinning at the critical rate. The fact that a very similar population of binaries has been found among small main belt asteroids suggests a binary formation mechanism that may not be related to close encounters with the terrestrial planets.

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