Letter | Published:

Super-catastrophic disruption of asteroids at small perihelion distances

Nature volume 530, pages 303306 (18 February 2016) | Download Citation


Most near-Earth objects came from the asteroid belt and drifted via non-gravitational thermal forces into resonant escape routes that, in turn, pushed them onto planet-crossing orbits1,2,3. Models predict that numerous asteroids should be found on orbits that closely approach the Sun, but few have been seen. In addition, even though the near-Earth-object population in general is an even mix of low-albedo (less than ten per cent of incident radiation is reflected) and high-albedo (more than ten per cent of incident radiation is reflected) asteroids, the characterized asteroids near the Sun typically have high albedos4. Here we report a quantitative comparison of actual asteroid detections and a near-Earth-object model (which accounts for observational selection effects). We conclude that the deficit of low-albedo objects near the Sun arises from the super-catastrophic breakup (that is, almost complete disintegration) of a substantial fraction of asteroids when they achieve perihelion distances of a few tens of solar radii. The distance at which destruction occurs is greater for smaller asteroids, and their temperatures during perihelion passages are too low for evaporation to explain their disappearance. Although both bright and dark (high- and low-albedo) asteroids eventually break up, we find that low-albedo asteroids are more likely to be destroyed farther from the Sun, which explains the apparent excess of high-albedo near-Earth objects and suggests that low-albedo asteroids break up more easily as a result of thermal effects.

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Discussions with D. Nesvorný, K. Tsiganis and S. Jacobson as well as a review by A. Harris helped improve the manuscript. M.G. was funded by grant 137853 from the Academy of Finland and D.V. by grant GA13-01308S of the Czech Science Foundation. W.F.B. thanks NASA’s Near Earth Object Observation programme for supporting his work in this project. We acknowledge support by ESA via contract AO/1-7015/11/NL/LvH (Synthetic Generation of a NEO Population). CSC – IT Centre for Science Ltd, Finland, the Finnish Grid Infrastructure and the mesocentre SIGAMM at the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur provided computational resources.

Author information


  1. Department of Physics, PO Box 64, 00014 University of Helsinki, Finland

    • Mikael Granvik
  2. Finnish Geospatial Research Institute, PO Box 15, 02430 Masala, Finland

    • Mikael Granvik
  3. Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur, Boulevard de l’Observatoire, F 06304 Nice Cedex 4, France

    • Alessandro Morbidelli
    • , Bryce Bolin
    • , Marco Delbò
    •  & Patrick Michel
  4. Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawaii, 2680 Woodlawn Drive, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Robert Jedicke
    •  & Bryce Bolin
  5. Southwest Research Institute, 1050 Walnut Street, Suite 300, Boulder, Colorado 80302, USA

    • William F. Bottke
  6. University of Arizona, 933 North Cherry Avenue, Tucson, Arizona 85721-0065, USA

    • Edward Beshore
  7. Institute of Astronomy, Charles University, V Holešovikách 2, CZ 18000 Prague 8, Czech Republic

    • David Vokrouhlický


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M.G. conceived the disruption model. M.G., A.M. and W.F.B. carried out orbital integrations using code modified by D.V. and A.M. R.J., B.B., M.G. and E.B. estimated observational biases for CSS. M.G. developed the code for fitting model parameters and carried out the fits. M.D. provided expertise on the WISE albedo analysis. M.G. wrote the paper with input from all authors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mikael Granvik.

The code for orbital integrations, SWIFT, is available at https://www.boulder.swri.edu/~hal/downloads.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains a detailed description of the modelling approach describing the generation of steady-state orbit distributions, estimation of observational selection effects, and estimation of model parameters, Supplementary Figures 1–14 and Supplementary References.


  1. 1.

    Debiased NEO orbital distribution

    The fractional NEO orbit (a,e,i) distribution as a function of H when assuming a disruption at q= 0.076 au.

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