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Rotational properties of asteroids, comets and TNOs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 March 2006

Alan W. Harris
Affiliation:
Space Science Institute, Boulder, CO 80301, USA email: awharris@spacescience.org
Petr Pravec
Affiliation:
Astronomical Institute, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Fričova 1, CZ-25165 Ondřejov, Czech Republic email: ppravec@asu.cas.cz
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Abstract

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Over the past 25 years the number of reliably determined rotation rates of asteroids has increased by an order of magnitude, from 157 in 1979 to 1686 in 2005. As the numbers have increased, various special classes and features have emerged. Asteroids larger than $\sim 50 \,\rm{km}$ diameter have a dispersion of spin rates that is well represented by a single Maxwellian distribution. Smaller asteroids have a more dispersed distribution, with both slow and fast spinning populations. We see a “spin rate barrier” in the size range of 1–10 km diameter that suggests that even rather small asteroids are “rubble piles”. Among the very slow rotators are some (but not all) that are “tumbling” in non-principal axis rotation states. Among the smallest asteroids (less than a few hundred m diameter) are some that spin dramatically faster than the “spin barrier”, indicating that they must have some tensile strength rather than consisting of loose regolith. In the last few years it has been recognized that the spins of asteroids smaller than a few tens of km diameter are affected by radiation pressure torques that tend to either speed up or slow down asteroid spin rates, thus providing an explanation for the dispersion of small asteroid spins, and also their non-random axis orientations. Lightcurves have also revealed the presence of binary asteroids among both Near-Earth and Main-Belt populations. Automated robotic observatories and next-generation survey instruments promise to increase the rate of production of asteroid lightcurves so that we may soon have tens of thousands of lightcurve results, extending down to even smaller sizes. In contrast, there are only about 20 rotation rates known for comets, and 15 for TNOs. Very little can be said from such meager statistics; the mean spin rate of TNOs appears to be comparable to that of asteroids, without extremes of fast or slow rotation; the mean spin rate of comets appears to be a bit slower than asteroids, perhaps due to lower mean density, and there may be an excess of slow rotators, probably due to gas jetting effects. The future is promising for studies of these objects as larger telescopes become available to do photometry to fainter magnitudes, so that comet nuclei can be studied at greater heliocentric distance with less coma interference, and more TNOs can be observed.

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Copyright
© 2006 International Astronomical Union
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