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The vector alignments of asteroid spins by thermal torques

Abstract

Collisions have been thought to be the dominant process altering asteroid rotations, but recent observations of the Koronis family of asteroids suggest that this may be incorrect. This group of asteroids was formed in a catastrophic collision several billion years ago; in the intervening period their rotational axes should have become nearly random because of subsequent collisions, with spin rates that follow a maxwellian distribution. What is seen, however, is that the observed family members with prograde spins have nearly identical periods (7.5–9.5 h) and obliquities between 42 and 50 degrees, while those with retrograde spins have obliquities between 154 and 169 degrees with periods either <5 h or >13 h. Here we show that these non-random orientations and spin rates can be explained by ‘thermal torques’ (arising from differential solar heating), which modify the spin states over time. In some cases, the asteroids become trapped in spin-orbit resonances. Our results suggest that thermal torques may be more important than collisions in changing the spin states (and possibly shapes) of asteroids with diameters <40 km.

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Figure 1: Several possible evolutionary paths for prograde rotator (311) Claudia, many of which evolve into Slivan states.
Figure 2: Prograde Koronis family members trapped in the s6 spin-orbit resonance.
Figure 4: Several possible evolutionary paths for retrograde rotator (321) Florentina, many of which evolve to faster rotation rates.
Figure 3: Several possible evolutionary paths for retrograde rotator (167) Urda, many of which evolve to slower rotation rates over 4 Gyr.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Agnor, D. Čapek, C. Chapman, D. Durda, M. Kaasalainen, A. Morbidelli, S. Slivan and W. Ward for discussions and comments. We also thank R. Binzel and D. Rubincam for reviews of our manuscript. The project was supported by NASA's Planetary Geology and Geophysics programme, NRC's COBASE programme, and the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic.

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Correspondence to David Vokrouhlický.

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Vokrouhlický, D., Nesvorný, D. & Bottke, W. The vector alignments of asteroid spins by thermal torques. Nature 425, 147–151 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01948

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