Letter | Published:

Earth encounters as the origin of fresh surfaces on near-Earth asteroids

Nature volume 463, pages 331334 (21 January 2010) | Download Citation


Telescopic measurements of asteroids’ colours rarely match laboratory reflectance spectra of meteorites owing to a ‘space weathering’1,2 process that rapidly3 reddens asteroid surfaces in less than 106 years. ‘Unweathered’ asteroids (those having spectra matching the most commonly falling ordinary chondrite meteorites), however, are seen among small bodies the orbits of which cross inside Mars and the Earth. Various explanations have been proposed for the origin of these fresh surface colours, ranging from collisions4 to planetary encounters5. Less reddened asteroids seem to cross most deeply into the terrestrial planet region, strengthening6 the evidence for the planetary-encounter theory5, but encounter details within 106 years remain to be shown. Here we report that asteroids displaying unweathered spectra (so-called ‘Q-types’7) have experienced orbital intersections closer than the Earth–Moon distance within the past 5 × 105 years. These Q-type asteroids are not currently found among asteroids showing no evidence of recent close planetary encounters. Our results substantiate previous work5: tidal stress8, strong enough to disturb and expose unweathered surface grains, is the most likely dominant short-term asteroid resurfacing process. Although the seismology details are yet to be worked out, the identification of rapid physical processes that can produce both fresh and weathered asteroid surfaces resolves the decades-long9 puzzle of the difference in colour of asteroids and meteorites.

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R.P.B. is a Chercheur Associé at the Observatoire de Paris IMCCE and thanks IMCCE and LESIA for their collaboration and hospitality during the initiation of this analysis. We thank C. Chapman, B. Clark, D. Richardson and D. Nesvorný for their constructive reviews and comments. Observations reported here were obtained at the Infrared Telescope Facility, which is operated by the University of Hawaii under Cooperative Agreement NCC 5-538 with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Science Mission Directorate, Planetary Astronomy Program. This paper includes data gathered with the 6.5 m Magellan Telescopes located at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. F.E.D. acknowledges funding from the Fulbright Program. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant 0506716 and NASA under grant NAG5-12355. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or NASA.

Author Contributions R.P.B. and A.T.T. served as principal investigators for a joint observing programme to acquire the near-infrared spectral data. Most data were acquired by R.P.B., C.A.T. and F.E.D., while F.E.D. performed most of the processing and taxonomic evaluation. Processing routines were developed by S.J.B., A.S.R. and R.P.B. The scientific analysis was directed by R.P.B. with the first stages performed by S.M. with input from M.B. and P.V. A.M. performed all of the orbital integrations. R.P.B. and A.M. worked jointly to draft the manuscript with all authors reviewing and contributing to its final form.

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  1. Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA

    • Richard P. Binzel
  2. Institut de Mecanique Celeste et de Calcul des Ephemerides (IMCCE), Observatoire de Paris, Paris 75014, France

    • Richard P. Binzel
    •  & Mirel Birlan
  3. Departement Cassiopee, Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, CNRS, Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, Nice 06304, France

    • Alessandro Morbidelli
  4. Laboratoire d’Etudes Spatiales et d’Instrumentation en Astrophysique (LESIA), Observatoire de Paris, Meudon 92195, France

    • Sihane Merouane
    •  & Francesca E. DeMeo
  5. ESTEC/ESA, Noordwijk 2200 AG, Netherlands

    • Pierre Vernazza
  6. Department of Physics and Astronomy, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona 86011, USA

    • Cristina A. Thomas
  7. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Maryland 20723, USA

    • Andrew S. Rivkin
  8. Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, Hilo, Hawaii 96720, USA

    • Schelte J. Bus
    •  & Alan T. Tokunaga


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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard P. Binzel.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Figure 1 with Legend, Supplementary Notes and Data, Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary References.

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