The early Solar System was a shooting gallery. Smaller-body collisions happened far more frequently than we see it today, pockmarking the Moon and Mercury. On a larger scale, simulation show the Earth came close to blowing apart when a Mars-sized object crashed into us long ago.
So we’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s asteroid collisions that cause these tiny bodies to break up, given their numbers and the history of our neighborhood. But it turns out, a new study says, that the larger asteroids likely have another way of coming apart.
“For asteroids about 100 meters [328 feet] in diameter collisions are not the primarily cause of break ups – rapid rotation is,” the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory stated.
“Moreover, because the rate of collisions depends on the numbers and sizes of objects but rotation does not, their results are in strong disagreement with previous models of collisionally-produced small asteroids.”
It turns out that rotation has a strong effect on such a small body. First, the asteroid is emitting stuff that can produce a spin — water evaporating, or its surface expanding as heat from the Sun strikes it. Also, the Sun’s pressure on the asteroid creates a rotation. Between these different effects, at the right (or wrong) moment it can cause a catastrophic breakup.
As a simulation (coupled with observations from the Pan-STARRS telescope), the research is not done with complete certainty. But the model shows 90% confidence that asteroids in the so-called “main belt” (between Mars and Jupiter”) experience disruptions in this way, at least once per year.