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Efficient disruption of small asteroids by Earth's atmosphere


Accurate modelling of the interaction between the atmosphere and an incoming bolide is a complex task, but crucial to determining the fraction of small asteroids that actually hit the Earth's surface. Most semi-analytical approaches have simplified the problem by considering the impactor as a strengthless liquid-like object (‘pancake’ models1,2), but recently a more realistic model has been developed that calculates motion, aerodynamic loading and ablation for each separate particle or fragment in a disrupted impactor3,4. Here we report the results of a large number of simulations in which we use both models to develop a statistical picture of atmosphere–bolide interaction for iron and stony objects with initial diameters up to 1 km. We show that the separated-fragments model predicts the total atmospheric disruption of much larger stony bodies than previously thought. In addition, our data set of >1,000 simulated impacts, combined with the known pre-atmospheric flux of asteroids with diameters less than 1 km5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, elucidates the flux of small bolides at the Earth's surface. We estimate that bodies >220 m in diameter will impact every 170,000 years.

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Figure 1: Results of SF and ‘pancake’ model simulations for stone and iron impactors.
Figure 2: Estimates of impact rate for both the top of the atmosphere and the Earth's surface.


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We thank B. Ivanov, W. Hartmann and P. Brown for providing cratering data, flux data, and for discussions, and B. Ivanov, H. J. Melosh, V. Shuvalov, J. Morgan, E. Pierazzo and M. Gounelle for suggestions that improved earlier drafts of this manuscript. This work benefited greatly from comments and suggestions from C. Chapman. N.A. thanks RFBR for support, and P.A.B. thanks the Royal Society for support.

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Bland, P., Artemieva, N. Efficient disruption of small asteroids by Earth's atmosphere. Nature 424, 288–291 (2003).

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