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Article

Henry Hsieh

The study of active asteroids is a relatively new field of study in Solar System science, focusing on objects with asteroid-like orbits but that exhibit comet-like activity. This field, which crosses traditionally drawn lines between research focused on inactive asteroids and active comets, has motivated reevaluations of classical assumptions about small Solar System objects and presents exciting new opportunities for learning more about the origin and evolution of the Solar System. Active asteroids whose activity appears to be driven by the sublimation of volatile ices could have significant implications for determining the origin of the Earth’s water—and therefore its ability to support life—and also challenge traditional assumptions about the survivability of ice in the warm inner Solar System. Meanwhile, active asteroids whose activity appears to be caused by disruptive processes such as impacts or rotational destabilization provide exciting opportunities to gain insights into fundamental processes operating in the asteroid belt and assessing their effects on the asteroid population seen in the 21st century.

Article

Kevin Righter

Asteroids 1 Ceres and 4 Vesta are the two most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt, with mean diameters of 946 km and 525 km, respectively. Ceres was reclassified as a dwarf planet by the International Astronomical Union as a result of its new dwarf planet definition which is a body that (a) orbits the sun, (b) has enough mass to assume a nearly round shape, (c) has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit, and (d) is not a moon. Scientists’ understanding of these two bodies has been revolutionized in the past decade by the success of the Dawn mission that visited both bodies. Vesta is an example of a small body that has been heated substantially and differentiated into a metallic core, silicate mantle, and basaltic crust. Ceres is a volatile-rich rocky body that experienced less heating than Vesta and has differentiated into rock and ice. These two contrasting bodies have been instrumental in learning how inner solar system material formed and evolved.

Article

Alan E. Rubin and Chi Ma

Meteorites are rocks from outer space that reach the Earth; more than 60,000 have been collected. They are derived mainly from asteroids; a few hundred each are from the Moon and Mars; some micrometeorites derive from comets. By mid 2020, about 470 minerals had been identified in meteorites. In addition to having characteristic petrologic and geochemical properties, each meteorite group has a distinctive set of pre-terrestrial minerals that reflect the myriad processes that the meteorites and their components experienced. These processes include condensation in gaseous envelopes around evolved stars, crystallization in chondrule melts, crystallization in metallic cores, parent-body aqueous alteration, and shock metamorphism. Chondrites are the most abundant meteorites; the major components within them include chondrules, refractory inclusions, opaque assemblages, and fine-grained silicate-rich matrix material. The least-metamorphosed chondrites preserve minerals inherited from the solar nebula such as olivine, enstatite, metallic Fe-Ni, and refractory phases. Other minerals in chondrites formed on their parent asteroids during thermal metamorphism (such as chromite, plagioclase and phosphate), aqueous alteration (such as magnetite and phyllosilicates) and shock metamorphism (such as ringwoodite and majorite). Differentiated meteorites contain minerals formed by crystallization from magmas; these phases include olivine, orthopyroxene, Ca-plagioclase, Ca-pyroxene, metallic Fe-Ni and sulfide. Meteorites also contain minerals formed during passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and via terrestrial weathering after reaching the surface. Whereas some minerals form only by a single process (e.g., by high-pressure shock metamorphism or terrestrial weathering of a primary phase), other meteoritic minerals can form by several different processes, including condensation, crystallization from melts, thermal metamorphism, and aqueous alteration.

Article

Iron meteorites are thought to be samples of metallic cores and pools that formed in diverse small planetary bodies. Their great diversity offers remarkable insights into the formation of asteroids and the early history of the solar system. The chemical compositions of iron meteorites generally match those predicted from experimental and theoretical considerations of melting in small bodies. These bodies, called planetesimals, were composed of mixtures of grains of silicates, metallic iron-nickel, and iron sulfide with compositions and proportions like those in chondrite meteorites. Melting in planetesimals caused dense metal to sink through silicate so that metallic cores formed. A typical iron meteorite contains 5–10% nickel, ~0.5% cobalt, 0.1–0.5% phosphorus, 0.1–1% sulfur and over 20 other elements in trace amounts. A few percent of iron meteorites also contain silicate inclusions, which should have readily separated from molten metal because of their buoyancy. They provide important evidence for impacts between molten or partly molten planetesimals. The major heat source for melting planetesimals was the radioactive isotope 26Al, which has a half-life of 0.7 million years. However, a few iron meteorites probably formed by impact melting of chondritic material. Impact processes were also important in the creation of many iron meteorites when planetesimals were molten. Chemical analysis show that most iron meteorites can be divided into 14 groups: about 15% appear to come from another 50 or more poorly sampled parent bodies. Chemical variations within all but three groups are consistent with fractional crystallization of molten cores of planetesimals. The other three groups are richer in silicates and probably come from pools of molten metal in chondritic bodies. Isotopic analysis provides formation ages for iron meteorites and clues to their provenance. Isotopic dating suggests that the parent bodies of iron meteorites formed before those of chondrites, and some irons appear to be the oldest known meteorites. Their unexpected antiquity is consistent with 26Al heating of planetesimals. Bodies that accreted more than ~2 million years after the oldest known solids (refractory inclusions in chondrites) should not have contained enough 26Al to melt. Isotopic analysis also shows that iron meteorites, like other meteorite types, display small anomalies due to pre-solar grains that were not homogenized in the solar nebula (or protoplanetary disk). Although iron meteorites are derived from asteroids, their isotopic anomalies provide the best clues that some come from planetesimals that did not form in the asteroid belt. Some may have formed beyond Jupiter; others show isotopic similarities to Earth and may have formed in the neighborhood of the terrestrial planets. Iron meteorites therefore contain important clues to the formation of planetesimals that melted and they also provide constraints on theories for the formation of planets and asteroids.

Article

The use of impact crater densities to estimate the ages of planetary surfaces began in the 1960s. Some predictive successes have been confirmed with radiometric dating of sites on the Moon and Mars. The method is highly dependent on our understanding of the rate of crater formation on different worlds, and, more importantly, on the history of that rate, starting with intense cratering during planetary formation 4.5 Ga ago. The system is thus calibrated by obtaining radiometric dates from samples of relatively homogeneous geologic units on various worlds. Crater chronometry is still in its infancy. Future sample-returns and in situ measurements, obtained by missions from collaborating nations to various worlds, will provide ever-increasing improvements in the system in coming decades. Such data can lead to at least two-significant-figure measurements, not only of the ages of broad geologic provinces on solar system worlds, but of the characteristic survival times of various-sized smaller craters. Such data, in turn, clarify the rates of turnover of surface materials and the production rates of gravel-like regolith and megaregolith in the surface layers. Better measurements of the impact rate at various times, in turn, support better modeling of the accretion and fragmentation processes among early planetesimals as well as contemporary asteroids, in various parts of the solar system. Once the crater chronometry system is calibrated for various planetary bodies, important chronological information about those various planetary bodies can be obtained by orbital missions, without the need for expensive sample-return or lander missions on each individual surface.

Article

Olga Popova

The asteroid impact near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013, was the largest airburst on Earth since the 1908 Tunguska event, causing a natural disaster in an area with a population exceeding 1 million. On clear morning at 9:20 a.m. local time, an asteroid about 19 m in size entered the Earth atmosphere near southern Ural Mountains (Russia) and, with its bright illumination, attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of people. Dust trail in the atmosphere after the bolide was tens of kilometers long and was visible for several hours. Thousands of different size meteorites were found in the areas south-southwest of Chelyabinsk. A powerful airburst, which was formed due to meteoroid energy deposition, shattered thousands of windows and doors in Chelyabinsk and wide surroundings, with flying glass injuring many residents. The entrance and destruction of the 500-kt Chelyabinsk asteroid produced a number of observable effects, including light and thermal radiation; acoustic, infrasound, blast, and seismic waves; and release of interplanetary substance. This unexpected and unusual event is the most well-documented bolide airburst, and it attracted worldwide attention. The airburst was observed globally by multiple instruments. Analyses of the observational data allowed determination of the size of the body that caused the superbolide, its velocity, its trajectory, its behavior in the atmosphere, the strength of the blast wave, and other characteristics. The entry of the 19-m-diameter Chelyabinsk asteroid provides a unique opportunity to calibrate the different approaches used to model meteoroid entry and to calculate the damaging effects. The recovered meteorite material was characterized as brecciated LL5 ordinary chondrite, in which three different lithologies can be distinguished (light-colored, dark-colored, and impact-melt). The structure and properties of meteorites demonstrate that before encountering Earth, the Chelyabinsk asteroid had experienced a very complex history involving at least a few impacts with other bodies and thermal metamorphism. The Chelyabinsk airburst of February 15, 2013, was exceptional because of the large kinetic energy of the impacting body and the damaging airburst that was generated. Before the event, decameter-sized objects were considered to be safe. With the Chelyabinsk event, it is possible, for the first time, to link the damage from an impact event to a well-determined impact energy in order to assess the future hazards of asteroids to lives and property.

Article

White dwarf planetary science is a rapidly growing field of research featuring a diverse set of observations and theoretical explorations. Giant planets, minor planets, and debris discs have all been detected orbiting white dwarfs. The innards of broken-up minor planets are measured on an element-by-element basis, providing a unique probe of exoplanetary chemistry. Numerical simulations and analytical investigations trace the violent physical and dynamical history of these systems from astronomical unit (au)-scale distances to the immediate vicinity of the white dwarf, where minor planets are broken down into dust and gas and accrete onto the white dwarf photosphere. Current and upcoming ground-based and space-based instruments are likely to further accelerate the pace of discoveries.

Article

Two important scientific questions that confronted 18th- and 19th-century naturalists were whether continental glaciation had occurred thousands of years earlier and whether extraterrestrial rocks occasionally fell to Earth. Eventual recognition of these hypotheses as real phenomena resulted from initial reports by nonprofessionals, subsequent investigation by skeptical scientists, and vigorous debate. Evidence that kilometer-thick glaciers had once covered Northern Europe and Canada included (a) the resemblance of scratched and polished rocks near mountain glaciers to those located in unglaciated U-shaped valleys; (b) the similarity of poorly sorted rocks and debris within “drift deposits” (moraines) to the sediment load of glaciers; and (c) the discovery of freezing meltwater at the base of glaciers, hypothesized to facilitate their movement. Three main difficulties naturalists had with accepting the notion that rocks fell from the sky were that (a) meteorite falls are localized events, generally unwitnessed by professional scientists; (b) mixed in with reports of falling rocks were fabulous accounts of falling masses of blood, flesh, milk, gelatin, and other substances; and (c) the phenomenon of falling rocks could neither be predicted nor verified by experiment. Five advances leading to the acceptance of meteorites were (a) Ernst Chladni’s 1794 treatise linking meteors, fireballs, and falling rocks; (b) meteor observations conducted in 1798 showing the high altitudes and enormous velocities of their meteoroid progenitors; (c) a spate of several widely witnessed meteorite falls between 1794 and 1807 in Europe, India, and America; (d) chemical analyses of several meteorites by Edward Charles Howard in 1802, showing all contained nickel (which is rare in the Earth’s crust); and (e) the discoveries of four asteroids between 1801 and 1807, providing a plausible extraterrestrial source for meteorites.

Article

V.V. Shevchenko

Since the early 1990s, in analytical reviews, experts have increasingly been paying attention to the growing scarcity of rare and rare earth metals (REM) necessary for the development of advanced technologies in modern industry. The volume of the world market has increased over the past 50 years from 5,000 to 125,000 tons per year, which is explained by the extensive use of REM in the rapidly developing areas of industry associated with the advancement of high technology. Unique properties of REM are primarily used in the aerospace and other industrial sectors of the economy, and therefore are strategic materials. For example, platinum is an indispensable element that is used as a catalyst for chemical reactions. No battery can do without platinum. If all the millions of vehicles traveling along our roads installed hybrid batteries, all platinum reserves on Earth would end in the next 15 years! Consumers are interested in six elements known as the platinum group of metals (PGM): iridium (Ir), osmium (Os), palladium (palladium, Pd), rhodium (rhodium, Rh), ruthenium (ruthenium, Ru), and platinum itself. These elements, rare on the Earth, possess unique chemical and physical properties, which makes them vital industrial materials. To solve this problem, projects were proposed for the utilization of the substance of asteroids approaching the Earth. According to modern estimates, the number of known asteroids approaching the Earth reaches more than 9,000. Despite the difficulties of seizing, transporting, and further developing such an object in space, this way of solving the problem seemed technologically feasible and cost-effectively justified. A 10 m iron-nickel asteroid could contain up to 75 tons of rare metals and REM, primarily PGM, equivalent to a commercial price of about $2.8 billion in 2016 prices. However, the utilization of an asteroid substance entering the lunar surface can be technologically simpler and economically more cost-effective. Until now, it was believed that the lunar impact craters do not contain the rocks of the asteroids that formed them, since at high velocities the impactors evaporate during a collision with the lunar surface. According to the latest research, it turned out that at a fall rate of less than 12 km/s falling body (drummer) can partially survive in a mechanically fractured state. Consequently, the number of possible resources present on the lunar surface can be attributed to nickel, cobalt, platinum, and rare metals of asteroid origin. The calculations show that the total mass, for example, of platinum and platinoids on the lunar surface as a result of the fall of asteroids may amount more than 14 million tons. It should be noted that the world’s known reserves of platinum group metals on the Earth are about 80,000 tons.

Article

Alexander T. Basilevsky

Lunar and planetary geology can be described using examples such as the geology of Earth (as the reference case) and geologies of the Earth’s satellite the Moon; the planets Mercury, Mars and Venus; the satellite of Saturn Enceladus; the small stony asteroid Eros; and the nucleus of the comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Each body considered is illustrated by its global view, with information given as to its position in the solar system, size, surface, environment including gravity acceleration and properties of its atmosphere if it is present, typical landforms and processes forming them, materials composing these landforms, information on internal structure of the body, stages of its geologic evolution in the form of stratigraphic scale, and estimates of the absolute ages of the stratigraphic units. Information about one body may be applied to another body and this, in particular, has led to the discovery of the existence of heavy “meteoritic” bombardment in the early history of the solar system, which should also significantly affect Earth. It has been shown that volcanism and large-scale tectonics may have not only been an internal source of energy in the form of radiogenic decay of potassium, uranium and thorium, but also an external source in the form of gravity tugging caused by attractions of the neighboring bodies. The knowledge gained by lunar and planetary geology is important for planning and managing space missions and for the practical exploration of other bodies of the solar system and establishing manned outposts on them.

Article

Throughout the history of human activity in outer space, the role of private companies has steadily grown, and, in some cases, companies have even replaced government agencies as the primary actors in space. As private space activity has grown and diversified, the laws and regulations that govern private actors have been forced to evolve in reaction to the new realities of the industry. On the international level, the treaties concluded in the 1960s and 1970s continue to be in force today. However, these treaties only govern state activity in space. The rules regulating private industry are necessarily domestic in nature, and it is in these domestic laws that the evolution of space law can be most clearly seen. That said, new industries, such as asteroid mining, are testing the limits of international law and have forced the international community to examine whether changes to long-standing laws are needed.

Article

Rainer Wieler

Cosmogenic nuclides are produced by the interaction of energetic elementary particles of galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and their secondaries with atomic nuclei in extraterrestrial or terrestrial material. In extraterrestrial samples cosmogenic nuclides produced by energetic particles emitted by the Sun (SCR) are also detectable. Cosmogenic nuclides usually are observable only for noble gas isotopes, whose natural abundances in the targets of interest are exceedingly low, with some radioactive isotopes having half-lives mostly in the million-year range, and a few stable nuclides of elements such as Gd and Sm whose abundance is appreciably modified by reactions with low-energy secondary cosmic-ray neutrons. In solid matter, the mean attenuation length of GCR protons is on the order of 50 cm. Therefore, cosmogenic nuclides are a major tool to study the history of small objects in space and of matter near the surfaces of larger parent bodies. A classical application is to measure “exposure ages” of meteorites, that is, the time they spent as a small body in interplanetary space. In some cases, the previous history of the future meteorite in its parent-body regolith can also be constrained. Such information helps to understand delivery mechanisms of meteorites from their parent asteroids (mainly from the main belt) or parent planets, and to constrain the number of ejection events responsible for the meteorites in collections worldwide. Cosmogenic nuclides in lunar samples from known depths of up to ~2 m serve to study the deposition and mixing history of the lunar regolith over hundreds of million years, as well as to calibrate nuclide production models. Present and future sample return missions rely on cosmogenic nuclide measurements as important tools to constrain the sample’s exposure history or loss rates of its parent-body surfaces to space. First measurements of cosmogenic noble gas isotopes on the surface of Mars demonstrate that the exposure and erosional history of planetary bodies can be obtained by in situ analyses. Exposure ages of presolar grains in meteorites provide at present the only quantitative constraint of their presolar history. In some cases, irradiation effects of energetic particles from the early Sun can be detected in early solar system condensates, confirming that the early Sun was likely much more active than later in its history, as expected from observations of young stars. The increasing precision of modern isotope analyses also reveals tiny isotopic anomalies induced by cosmic-ray effects in several elements of interest in cosmochemistry, which need to be recognized and corrected for. Cosmogenic nuclide studies rely on the knowledge of their production rates, which depend on the elemental composition of a sample and its “shielding” during irradiation, that is, its position within an irradiated object, and for meteorites their pre-atmospheric size. The physics of cosmogenic nuclide production is basically well understood and has led to sophisticated production models. They are most successful if a sample’s shielding can be constrained by the analyses of several cosmogenic nuclides with different depth dependencies of their production rates. Cosmogenic nuclides are also an important tool in Earth sciences, although this is not a topic of this article. The foremost example is 14C produced in the atmosphere and incorporated into organic material, which is used for dating. Cosmogenic radionucuclides and noble gases produced in situ in near-surface samples, mostly by secondary cosmic-ray neutrons, are an important tool in quantitative geomorphology and related fields.

Article

Angel Abbud-Madrid

Throughout human history, resources have been the driving force behind the exploration and settling of our planet and also the means to do so. Similarly, resources beyond Earth will make space the next destination in the quest for further exploration and economic expansion of our species. The multitude of celestial bodies surrounding Earth and the space between them hold a vast wealth of resources for a variety of applications. The unlimited solar energy, vacuum, radiation, and low gravity in space, as well as the minerals, metals, water, atmospheric gases, and volatile elements on the Moon, asteroids, comets, and the inner and outer planets of the Solar System and their moons, constitute potential valuable resources for robotic and human space missions and for future use on our own planet. In the short term, these resources could be transformed into useful materials at the site where they are found to extend mission duration and to reduce the costly dependence on materials sent from Earth. Making propellants and human consumables from local resources can significantly reduce mission mass, cost, and risk, enabling longer stays and fueling transportation systems for use within and beyond the planetary surface. Use of finely grained surficial dust and rocks can serve for habitat and infrastructure construction, radiation protection, manufacturing parts, and growing crops. In the long term, material resources and solar energy could also be brought to Earth if obtaining these resources and meeting energy demands locally prove to be no longer economically or environmentally acceptable. However, just like on Earth, not all challenges to identify, extract, and utilize space resources are scientific and technological. As nations and private companies start working toward extracting extraterrestrial resources, an international legal framework and sound socioeconomic policies need to be put in place to ensure that these resources are used for the benefit of all humanity. Space resources promise to unleash an unprecedented wave of exploration and of economic prosperity by utilizing the full potential and value of space. As we embark on this new activity, it will be up to us, humans on planet Earth, to find the best alternatives to use resources beyond our planet effectively, responsibly, and sustainably to make this promise a reality.