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Concept: Asteroid


Most stars become white dwarfs after they have exhausted their nuclear fuel (the Sun will be one such). Between one-quarter and one-half of white dwarfs have elements heavier than helium in their atmospheres, even though these elements ought to sink rapidly into the stellar interiors (unless they are occasionally replenished). The abundance ratios of heavy elements in the atmospheres of white dwarfs are similar to the ratios in rocky bodies in the Solar System. This fact, together with the existence of warm, dusty debris disks surrounding about four per cent of white dwarfs, suggests that rocky debris from the planetary systems of white-dwarf progenitors occasionally pollutes the atmospheres of the stars. The total accreted mass of this debris is sometimes comparable to the mass of large asteroids in the Solar System. However, rocky, disintegrating bodies around a white dwarf have not yet been observed. Here we report observations of a white dwarf–WD 1145+017–being transited by at least one, and probably several, disintegrating planetesimals, with periods ranging from 4.5 hours to 4.9 hours. The strongest transit signals occur every 4.5 hours and exhibit varying depths (blocking up to 40 per cent of the star’s brightness) and asymmetric profiles, indicative of a small object with a cometary tail of dusty effluent material. The star has a dusty debris disk, and the star’s spectrum shows prominent lines from heavy elements such as magnesium, aluminium, silicon, calcium, iron, and nickel. This system provides further evidence that the pollution of white dwarfs by heavy elements might originate from disrupted rocky bodies such as asteroids and minor planets.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Planet, Dwarf planet, Star, Asteroid, Comet, Asteroid belt


The asteroid impact near the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on 15 February 2013 was the largest airburst on Earth since the 1908 Tunguska event, causing a natural disaster in an area with a population exceeding one million. Because it occurred in an era with modern consumer electronics, field sensors, and laboratory techniques, unprecedented measurements were made of the impact event and the meteoroid that caused it. Here, we document the account of what happened, as understood now, using comprehensive data obtained from astronomy, planetary science, geophysics, meteorology, meteoritics, and cosmochemistry, and from social science surveys. A good understanding of the Chelyabinsk incident provides a unique opportunity to calibrate the event, with implications for the study of near-Earth objects and developing hazard mitigation strategies for planetary protection.

Concepts: Mars, Impact event, Meteorite, Planetary science, Asteroid, Comet, Meteoroid, Tunguska event


The ‘snowline’ conventionally divides Solar System objects into dry bodies, ranging out to the main asteroid belt, and icy bodies beyond the belt. Models suggest that some of the icy bodies may have migrated into the asteroid belt. Recent observations indicate the presence of water ice on the surface of some asteroids, with sublimation a potential reason for the dust activity observed on others. Hydrated minerals have been found on the surface of the largest object in the asteroid belt, the dwarf planet (1) Ceres, which is thought to be differentiated into a silicate core with an icy mantle. The presence of water vapour around Ceres was suggested by a marginal detection of the photodissociation product of water, hydroxyl (ref. 12), but could not be confirmed by later, more sensitive observations. Here we report the detection of water vapour around Ceres, with at least 10(26) molecules being produced per second, originating from localized sources that seem to be linked to mid-latitude regions on the surface. The water evaporation could be due to comet-like sublimation or to cryo-volcanism, in which volcanoes erupt volatiles such as water instead of molten rocks.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Mars, Dwarf planet, Neptune, Asteroid, Ceres, Asteroid belt


Organic compounds occur in some chondritic meteorites, and their signatures on solar system bodies have been sought for decades. Spectral signatures of organics have not been unambiguously identified on the surfaces of asteroids, whereas they have been detected on cometary nuclei. Data returned by the Visible and InfraRed Mapping Spectrometer on board the Dawn spacecraft show a clear detection of an organic absorption feature at 3.4 micrometers on dwarf planet Ceres. This signature is characteristic of aliphatic organic matter and is mainly localized on a broad region of ~1000 square kilometers close to the ~50-kilometer Ernutet crater. The combined presence on Ceres of ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, salts, and organic material indicates a very complex chemical environment, suggesting favorable environments to prebiotic chemistry.

Concepts: Solar System, Mars, Dwarf planet, Asteroid, Ceres, Asteroid belt, Kuiper belt, Dawn


It has been proposed that fragments of an asteroid or comet impacted Earth, deposited silica- and iron-rich microspherules and other proxies across several continents, and triggered the Younger Dryas cooling episode 12,900 years ago. Although many independent groups have confirmed the impact evidence, the hypothesis remains controversial because some groups have failed to do so. We examined sediment sequences from 18 dated Younger Dryas boundary (YDB) sites across three continents (North America, Europe, and Asia), spanning 12,000 km around nearly one-third of the planet. All sites display abundant microspherules in the YDB with none or few above and below. In addition, three sites (Abu Hureyra, Syria; Melrose, Pennsylvania; and Blackville, South Carolina) display vesicular, high-temperature, siliceous scoria-like objects, or SLOs, that match the spherules geochemically. We compared YDB objects with melt products from a known cosmic impact (Meteor Crater, Arizona) and from the 1945 Trinity nuclear airburst in Socorro, New Mexico, and found that all of these high-energy events produced material that is geochemically and morphologically comparable, including: (i) high-temperature, rapidly quenched microspherules and SLOs; (ii) corundum, mullite, and suessite (Fe(3)Si), a rare meteoritic mineral that forms under high temperatures; (iii) melted SiO(2) glass, or lechatelierite, with flow textures (or schlieren) that form at > 2,200 °C; and (iv) particles with features indicative of high-energy interparticle collisions. These results are inconsistent with anthropogenic, volcanic, authigenic, and cosmic materials, yet consistent with cosmic ejecta, supporting the hypothesis of extraterrestrial airbursts/impacts 12,900 years ago. The wide geographic distribution of SLOs is consistent with multiple impactors.

Concepts: Impact event, North America, Meteorite, Impact crater, Younger Dryas, Asteroid, Natufian culture, Comet


Studies of the dwarf planet (1) Ceres using ground-based and orbiting telescopes have concluded that its closest meteoritic analogues are the volatile-rich CI and CM carbonaceous chondrites. Water in clay minerals, ammoniated phyllosilicates, or a mixture of Mg(OH)2 (brucite), Mg2CO3 and iron-rich serpentine have all been proposed to exist on the surface. In particular, brucite has been suggested from analysis of the mid-infrared spectrum of Ceres. But the lack of spectral data across telluric absorption bands in the wavelength region 2.5 to 2.9 micrometres-where the OH stretching vibration and the H2O bending overtone are found-has precluded definitive identifications. In addition, water vapour around Ceres has recently been reported, possibly originating from localized sources. Here we report spectra of Ceres from 0.4 to 5 micrometres acquired at distances from ~82,000 to 4,300 kilometres from the surface. Our measurements indicate widespread ammoniated phyllosilicates across the surface, but no detectable water ice. Ammonia, accreted either as organic matter or as ice, may have reacted with phyllosilicates on Ceres during differentiation. This suggests that material from the outer Solar System was incorporated into Ceres, either during its formation at great heliocentric distance or by incorporation of material transported into the main asteroid belt.

Concepts: Solar System, Planet, Dwarf planet, Asteroid, 4 Vesta, Ceres, Asteroid belt, Kuiper belt


The surface elemental composition of dwarf planet Ceres constrains its regolith ice content, aqueous alteration processes, and interior evolution. Using nuclear spectroscopy data acquired by NASA’s Dawn mission, we determined the concentrations of H, Fe, and K on Ceres. The data show that surface materials were processed by the action of water within the interior. The non-icy portion of Ceres' C-bearing regolith contains similar amounts of H to aqueously altered carbonaceous chondrites, but less Fe. This allows for the possibility that Ceres experienced modest ice-rock fractionation, resulting in differences between surface and bulk composition. At mid-to-high latitudes, the regolith contains high concentrations of H, consistent with broad expanses of water ice, confirming theoretical predictions that ice can survive for billions of years just beneath the surface.

Concepts: Solar System, Mars, Dwarf planet, Pluto, Asteroid, Ceres, Asteroid belt, Dawn


Asteroids are primitive Solar System bodies that evolve both collisionally and through disruptions arising from rapid rotation. These processes can lead to the formation of binary asteroids and to the release of dust, both directly and, in some cases, through uncovering frozen volatiles. In a subset of the asteroids called main-belt comets, the sublimation of excavated volatiles causes transient comet-like activity. Torques exerted by sublimation measurably influence the spin rates of active comets and might lead to the splitting of bilobate comet nuclei. The kilometre-sized main-belt asteroid 288P (300163) showed activity for several months around its perihelion 2011 (ref. 11), suspected to be sustained by the sublimation of water ice and supported by rapid rotation, while at least one component rotates slowly with a period of 16 hours (ref. 14). The object 288P is part of a young family of at least 11 asteroids that formed from a precursor about 10 kilometres in diameter during a shattering collision 7.5 million years ago. Here we report that 288P is a binary main-belt comet. It is different from the known asteroid binaries in its combination of wide separation, near-equal component size, high eccentricity and comet-like activity. The observations also provide strong support for sublimation as the driver of activity in 288P and show that sublimation torques may play an important part in binary orbit evolution.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mercury, Jupiter, Asteroid, Comet, Asteroid belt


Asteroids provide fundamental clues to the formation and evolution of planetesimals. Collisional models based on the depletion of the primordial main belt of asteroids predict 10-15 craters >400 km should have formed on Ceres, the largest object between Mars and Jupiter, over the last 4.55 Gyr. Likewise, an extrapolation from the asteroid Vesta would require at least 6-7 such basins. However, Ceres' surface appears devoid of impact craters >∼280 km. Here, we show a significant depletion of cerean craters down to 100-150 km in diameter. The overall scarcity of recognizable large craters is incompatible with collisional models, even in the case of a late implantation of Ceres in the main belt, a possibility raised by the presence of ammoniated phyllosilicates. Our results indicate that a significant population of large craters has been obliterated, implying that long-wavelength topography viscously relaxed or that Ceres experienced protracted widespread resurfacing.

Concepts: Solar System, Mars, Dwarf planet, Jupiter, Asteroid, 4 Vesta, Ceres, Asteroid belt


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 orbits. 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 albedos. 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.

Concepts: Scientific method, Sun, Solar System, Planet, Mars, Jupiter, Asteroid, Comet