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Numerical modeling of asteroids and space missions to their primitive components

Friday, October 28, 2011

Small bodies of our Solar System experience a wide variety of physical processes over their lifetime. In recent years, we have explored numerically the response of small bodies to various kinds of processes. We have developed a numerical method that allows us to investigate the outcome of catastrophic disruptions as a function of the internal properties of the involved bodies, accounting for both the fragmentation and the gravitational phases. In particular, we could reproduce successfully for the first time the formation of major main belt asteroid families, suggesting that most members are the produce of the gravitational reaccumulation of smaller fragments generated during the parent body disruption. Then, we investigated the effect of microporosity on the impact response of a small body, showing that it has a non-negligible influence. We also developed a numerical code that allows us to study the evolution of gravitational aggregates as well as the dynamics of granular material at the surface of solid celestial bodies. This allowed us to propose a scenario of formation of asteroid binaries, which leads to their observed properties. Moreover, thermal infrared observations indicate that the thermal inertia of all observed asteroids is lower than that of bare rock, indicating the presence of regolith on their surface. Therefore it is important to understand how this regolith evolves under various conditions, and this understanding as important implications in the design of efficient sampling or anchoring tools onboard of spacecraft aimed at visiting those bodies.  
I will make a review of those findings, current developments and perspectives. I will also briefly present the current space missions that have been selected (NASA OSIRIS-Rex, JAXA Hayabusa 2) or are in selection phase (ESA MarcoPolo-R), which all aim at returning a sample from a primitive Near-Earth asteroid. The fact that three main space agencies have such space missions under development or study shows the international interest for this field. Given the potential diversity of these objects and the different possible ways to collect a sample, having several sample return missions aimed at returning a sample will certainly lead to major advances in our knowledge of what primitive materials are. 



Patrick Michel

Senior Researcher at CNRS (French National Scientific Research Center)

Leader of the Group of Planetology of the Cote d'Azur Observatory (Nice, France).

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