for National Geographic News
Images of the near-Earth asteroid Itokawa may shake up conventional ideas about what the space rocks are made of and how they "weather" over time.
High-resolution snapshots show that the asteroid's surface materials—a mix of gravel and boulders called regolith—are sorted by shaking and vibrations that occasionally rock the entire object.
Fine particles gather in the areas of lowest gravity, creating patches that look smooth from afar. Larger boulders are grouped together and stranded on the surface in clumps.
The findings are the first to reveal clear evidence that global-scale resurfacing processes occur on relatively small asteroids.
"Asteroids smaller than a kilometer [0.6 mile] are considered not [able] to hold granules on their surfaces due to low gravity," said study leader Hideaki Miyamoto of the University of Tokyo.
Surface gravity on the 1,640-foot-long (500-meter-long) Itokawa is about a hundred thousand times less than it is on Earth (related: explore a virtual model of the solar system).
"[It was believed that] granules would have easily escaped from the surface, so the piles we found on Itokawa were very surprising."
All Shook Up
Miyamoto and colleagues used images from the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa, which landed on Itokawa in 2005.
The shots were detailed enough to reveal individual pieces of gravel just centimeters in size.
The team's analysis appears in the current issue of the journal Science.
"I think this paper on Itokawa is an epoch-making, classic work, which reveals for the first time how regolith on a low-gravity body develops," said Takahiro Hiroi, a Brown University researcher unaffiliated with the study.
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