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Small Solar System Bodies as granular media


Asteroids and other Small Solar System Bodies (SSSBs) are of high general and scientific interest in many aspects. The origin, formation, and evolution of our Solar System (and other planetary systems) can be better understood by analysing the constitution and physical properties of small bodies in the Solar System. Currently, two space missions (Hayabusa2, OSIRIS-REx) have recently arrived at their respective targets and will bring a sample of the asteroids back to Earth. Other small body missions have also been selected by, or proposed to, space agencies. The threat posed to our planet by near-Earth objects (NEOs) is also considered at the international level, and this has prompted dedicated research on possible mitigation techniques. The DART mission, for example, will test the kinetic impact technique. Even ideas for industrial exploitation have risen during the last years. Lastly, the origin of water and life on Earth appears to be connected to asteroids. Hence, future space mission projects will undoubtedly target some asteroids or other SSSBs. In all these cases and research topics, specific knowledge of the structure and mechanical behaviour of the surface as well as the bulk of those celestial bodies is crucial. In contrast to large telluric planets and dwarf planets, a large proportion of such small bodies is believed to consist of gravitational aggregates (‘rubble piles’) with no—or low—internal cohesion, with varying macro-porosity and surface properties (from smooth regolith covered terrain, to very rough collection of boulders), and varying topography (craters, depressions, ridges). Bodies with such structure can sustain some plastic deformation without being disrupted in contrast to the classical visco-elastic models that are generally valid for planets, dwarf planets, and large satellites. These SSSBs are hence better described through granular mechanics theories, which have been a subject of intense theoretical, experimental, and numerical research over the last four decades. This being the case, it has been necessary to use the theoretical, numerical and experimental tools developed within soil mechanics, granular dynamics, celestial mechanics, chemistry, condensed matter physics, planetary and computer sciences, to name the main ones, in order to understand the data collected and analysed by observational astronomy (visible, thermal, and radio), and different space missions. In this paper, we present a review of the multi-disciplinary research carried out by these different scientific communities in an effort to study SSSBs.

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  1. 1.

  2. 2.

    More precisely the macroscopic porosity.

  3. 3.

    Micro-porosity on the other hand is in the matrix of the grains or meteorites. Micro-porosity is a porosity that will survive entry in the atmosphere.

  4. 4.

    Possibly including relativistic effects, but this is not relevant in this paper on small bodies.

  5. 5.

    SpaceGrains ESA Topical Team from the European Space Agency

  6. 6.

    Sizes, when not measured directly, are estimated from the absolute magnitude H and by assuming an albedo of 0.2.


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This work is a direct result of support by the International Space Science Institute, ISSI Bern, Switzerland, through the hosting and provision of financial support for the international team “Asteroids and Self-Gravitating Bodies as Granular Systems” led by DH. The authors would like to thank the ISSI Institute and staff for their support, and the Paris observatory for financial support. Thanks to MIAPP, Munich Institute for Astro and Particle Physics of the DFG cluster of excellence “Origin and Structure of the Universe” and participants of the the workshop on NEOS for fruitful discussions. EO thanks Prodex (Belspo) and ESA (Topical Team no. 4000103461) for financial support. DCR was supported in part by NASA grant NNX15AH90G awarded by the Solar System Workings program. SRS acknowledges support from the Academies of Excellence: Complex systems and Space, environment, risk, and resilience, part of the IDEX JEDI of the Université Côte d’Azur. SE acknowledges support from the DiRAC Institute in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Washington. The DiRAC Institute is supported through generous gifts from the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, and the Washington Research Foundation. We are grateful to all the other members of the ISSI international team for discussions, exchanges, inputs, and contributions. We are grateful to Brian Warner for kindly providing us an up-to-date ‘spin-rate versus diameter’ figure. This work has made use of Wm R. Johnston archive data, and intensive use of NASA’s Astrophysics Data System.

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Hestroffer, D., Sánchez, P., Staron, L. et al. Small Solar System Bodies as granular media. Astron Astrophys Rev 27, 6 (2019).

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  • Small bodies of the Solar System SSSB, minor planets, asteroids: general
  • Gravitational aggregates
  • Granular media
  • Methods: numerical, laboratory, observational
  • Planetary formation