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The surface properties of small asteroids from thermal-infrared observations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 March 2006

Alan W. Harris
DLR Institute of Planetary Research, Rutherfordstrasse 2, 12489 Berlin, Germany email:
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While the physical characterization of near-Earth objects (NEOs) is progressing at a much slower rate than that of discovery, a substantial body of thermal-infrared data has been gathered over the past few years. A wide variety of taxonomic classes in the NEO population have now been sampled by means of thermal-infrared spectrophotometric observations. The resulting albedo information, together with the distribution of taxonomic types from spectroscopic investigations and the rapidly increasing catalog of orbits and absolute magnitudes derived from NEO search programs, such as LINEAR, facilitates more accurate estimates of the size distribution of the NEO population and the magnitude of the impact hazard. Despite our rapidly increasing knowledge of the NEO population, many questions and uncertainties remain, such as: How does the albedo distribution of NEOs compare with that of main-belt asteroids, and does space weathering play a role? How does the surface structure and regolith coverage of NEOs vary with size and taxonomic type? What fraction of NEOs are extinct comets? A property of particular interest is the surface thermal inertia of small asteroids, which is an indicator of the presence or lack of a thermally-insulating surface layer. Large asteroids can accumulate regolith, but can very small asteroids retain thermally-insulating collisional debris or at least a dust layer? Knowledge of thermal inertia is important for accurate calculations of the Yarkovsky effect, which can significantly influence the orbital evolution of potentially hazardous NEOs, and for the design of instruments for lander missions. Contrary to earlier expectations, evidence appears to be accumulating that even sub-kilometer asteroids often have a significant thermally-insulating surface layer. Recent results from thermal-infrared investigations of NEOs are reviewed and implications for the surface properties of small asteroids discussed.

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© 2006 International Astronomical Union