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Headshot of Emily Lakdawalla

DPS 2013: The fascination of tiny worlds

Posted by Emily Lakdawalla

17-10-2013 14:27 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, comets, Saturn's small moons, asteroids, comet Tempel 1, explaining science, Saturn's moons, Phobos, asteroid 433 Eros, Deimos, conference report

The Division for Planetary Sciences meeting featured a broad, enjoyable set of plenary talks this year (though there can and should have been more women giving talks -- no women received prizes from the DPS this year, which just stinks). One talk that I particularly enjoyed was given by Joe Veverka, who won this year's Kuiper prize, which is the DPS' "lifetime achievement" award. Kuiper prize talks are usually great because they allow a scientist to reflect on an entire career's worth of work, and the space program is yet young enough that Kuiper prizewinners' careers still encompass most if not all of planetary exploration history.

Veverka's prize talk was titled "Small is NOT Dull: Unravelling the Complexity of Surface Processes on Asteroids, Comets and Small Satellites," and it was a terrific overview of the bizarre things we've seen on the surfaces of tiny, lumpy worlds over the last 40 years.

Veverka began by pointing out it's been just over 40 years since we got our first close-up glimpse of one of the solar system's distinctly non-round worlds. I hadn't thought before about what that first glimpse would've been: Mariner 9's views of Phobos and Deimos. Here's one of Mariner 9's best Phobos pictures:

Phobos from Mariner 9

NASA / JPL / Emily Lakdawalla

Phobos from Mariner 9
Mariner 9 captured this view of Phobos on December 1, 1971. Stickney crater takes a bite out of the upper left edge of the disk; the large Hall crater, right of center, is close to Phobos' south pole. The side of Phobos that always faces Mars is the upper hemisphere; the lower hemisphere always faces away from Mars. Phobos is 26.00 km x 22.78 km x 18.14 kilometers in size.

Veverka mentioned that the first cometary surface was Halley, imaged by Giotto in 1986:

Giotto's encounter with Halley's comet

ESA / Giotto project, H. U. Keller / animation by Daniel Macháček / stabilized by Gordan Ugarkovic

Giotto's encounter with Halley's comet
Giotto's HMC images of Halley's comet, captured on March 13 and 14, 1986, were complicated by the fact that its camera was a line-scanning or "pushbroom" instrument, while the spacecraft rotated. Near closest approach, the spacecraft took 74-pixel-wide images in rapid succession until the spacecraft suffered too much damage from Halley's debris.

And the first asteroids were Gaspra and Ida, studied by Galileo in 1991 and 1993:

Asteroid 951 Gaspra

NASA / JPL / Emily Lakdawalla

Asteroid 951 Gaspra
Galileo's highest-resolution global view of asteroid Gaspra. This is a mosaic of two images captured on October 29, 1991 from a distance of about 5350 kilometers.
Ida and Dactyl in color

NASA / JPL / SSI / color composite by Emily Lakdawalla

Ida and Dactyl in color
Galileo took the three images for this enhanced-color view of asteroid 143 Ida and its satellite Dactyl on August 28, 1993 at about 16:30 UTC, about 20 minutes before its closest approach. Galileo was about 16,000 kilometers from the asteroid at the time

The time before we visited these things was an innocent one, when there was no data, when scientists were free to speculate about what the solar system's small bodies might look like. Forty years ago, there was serious debate as to whether small bodies could hold on to a regolith like the Moon does. Wouldn't any impact ejecta just get blasted away, never to return, thanks to the lack of gravity?

The earliest pictures of Deimos showed that yes, even a tiny body less than 15 kilometers in diameter could retain a smoothing cover of debris. Even more than that, it looks like the debris has slid downhill from Deimos' equatorial ridge. "One of the early prejudices was that, in presence of very low gravity, downslope movement wouldn't be effective," Veverka said. "As it turned out, efficiency of moving stuff downhill is independent of gravity."

Deimos from Mariner 9

NASA / JPL / Emily Lakdawalla

Deimos from Mariner 9
Mariner 9 was the first spacecraft to capture detailed views of Deimos. This photo was taken on January 27, 1972.

Probably the extreme of things-covered-in-debris seen so far in the solar system is Saturn's tiny moon Methone. It's completely covered out to a smooth, equipotential surface by stuff ejected from Enceladus' geysers.


NASA / JPL / SSI / Phil Stooke

Methone is a small (3-kilometer) moon of Saturn that orbits between Mimas and Enceladus near Anthe and Pallene. Cassini captured high-resolution views of it on May 20, 2012.

And yet, in Saturn's system there are some things that conspicuously show downslope movement of debris, like Helene:

Helene in color

NASA / JPL / SSI / color composite by Daniel Macháček

Helene in color
Cassini captured this natural-color view of Helene on June 18, 2011.

And others that don't, like Janus. Veverka said we still don't know why this contrast exists.

Janus global color view

NASA / JPL / SSI / color composite by Gordan Ugarkovic

Janus global color view
Cassini gazed at Janus (193 by 173 by 137 kilometers in diameter) from a distance of 96,000 kilometers on July 26, 2009 to capture this natural-color, global view; even the night side is faintly illuminated by light reflected from Saturn or the rings. Janus is the larger of a pair of moons that share an orbit around Saturn; its partner is Epimetheus.

Throughout the solar system, geologists have found "ponds" of particulate material in low-lying elevations on small bodies. These were first studied on the near-Earth asteroid Eros by NEAR; in fact, NEAR landed in such a pond.

NEAR's final descent

NASA / JHU-APL / Cornell / Daniel Macháček

NEAR's final descent
On December 2, 2001, the NEAR spacecraft spiraled in to a touchdown on asteroid Eros. It took and transmitted photos throughout its descent. This mosaic is composed of NEAR's final four photos.

These particles are tiny, less than 100 microns in diameter. "Something has effectively sorted [these tiniest particles] from the regolith. What is that process? We don't entirely know but we have hints." Veverka talked about some work that Pascal Lee did in 1996, which pointed out that the ponds are preferentially located near the equator. Stuff at the equator spends longer on the terminator (day-night boundary) than stuff located at the poles, because of seasons -- equatorial parts of the asteroid just see more sunrises and sunsets than more polar regions that get stuck in winter darkness and summer sunlight for a long time. We know that on the Moon, very fine dust is levitated off the ground by electrostatic charges that concentrate near the day-night boundary; the same likely happens on asteroids, and once the stuff can return to the ground, it'll naturally head downhill.

Next he talked about grooves, which are found on lots of small objects. There have been many explanations for groove, none of them totally satisfying. On Saturn's small moon Epimetheus, as well as on Mars' Phobos, Veverka favored a hypothesis put forth by Sarah Morrison and coauthors (including him) in 2009: that the grooves are oriented in such a way as to indicate that they relate to tidal stresses on the little bodies. Here's a map of Phobos' grooves that looks down onto Phobos' north pole:

Phobos' grooves (north polar map)

Sarah Morrison et al. 2009 doi:10.1016/j.icarus.2009.06.003

Phobos' grooves (north polar map)
In a 2009 paper concerning grooves on Saturn's moons and other small bodies, Sarah Morrison and coworkers argued that Phobos' grooves are consistent with fracturing due to extension along its long axis due to tidal forces from its orbit around Mars.

On asteroids, Veverka said, the grooves appear to relate to major impacts; he pointed to work done by Louise Prockter and coworkers mapping Eros' grooves. Many grooves on these small bodies have pits along them, where it seems that some of the regolith has drained into an opening fracture. According to work by Kevin Hortman and Jay Melosh, the spacing between these pits is roughl equivalent to the thickness of the regolith at that spot -- so pit spacing provides a handy way to measure regolith depth.

Veverka moved on to comets, and talked about one of the big mysteries that still has comet geologists scratching their heads. Before we ever saw a comet up close, scientists were curious about what impact craters would look like on them. Despite having visited several comets, we still don't really know, because we're having a very difficult time figuring out which surface features, if any, are impact craters. Look at all the comets we've explored:

Comets visited by spacecraft

Halley: Russian Academy of Sciences / Ted Stryk. Tempel 1 and Hartley 2: NASA / JPL / UMD. Borrelly: NASA / JPL / Ted Stryk. Wild 2: NASA / JPL. Montage by Emily Lakdawalla.

Comets visited by spacecraft
As of November 5, 2010, five comet nuclei had been directly imaged by flyby spacecraft. They are shown here to scale with each other, at 20 meters per pixel (in the click to enlarge version).

There are pits on many of them, particularly Tempel 1 and Wild 2, but are those pits impact craters? They are both Jupiter family comets with relatively frequent approaches to the Sun, so their surfaces should be short-lived. Not all of the pits on their surfaces can be impact craters.

Insight into what really may be going on on comets comes in part from Cassini's observation of small Saturnian moons. Veverka compared Epimetheus, shown below, to Tempel 1.


NASA / JPL / SSI / color composite by Gordan Ugarkovic

Cassini flew within 40,000 kilometers of Saturn's moon Epimetheus to capture the images necessary to compose this natural-color view on December 3, 2007. Epimetheus is 135 by 108 by 105 kilometers in diameter and shares an orbit with the slightly larger Janus.

He mentioned that the comparison between Tempel 1 and Epimetheus isn't quite fair because Epimetheus is more than ten times larger than Tempel 1, but the two are similarly "under-dense," having densities only about 40% (Tempel 1) and 60% (Epimetheus) of that of water. That suggests they both must be fluffy like snow, both on the surface and inside. How does this material behave when something strikes it or when comet outbursts happen? In his own work, Veverka has remarked on Tempel 1's smooth flows, un-pitted regions of smooth material that seem to occur only in gravitationally low-lying areas. Fluff that gets mobilized by an impact or an outburst runs downhill and ponds in depressions. In the image below, the top half of Tempel 1 contains a tounge of material that seems to have flowed in this way.

Tempel 1

NASA / JPL / Cornell

Tempel 1
Stardust took this photo of Tempel 1 15 seconds before its close approach to the comet on February 15, 2011.

It's tempting to think of small bodies as nothing more than passive tracers for the gravitational forces that shape the solar system, but Veverka's talk convincingly demonstrated otherwise. The forces that shape their surfaces -- gravity-driven landslides, levitating-dust ponds, tide- or impact-induced grooves, or impacts themselves -- do not come from active internal geology, but their surfaces are still fascinating. Each body is subject to the same forces, and the same processes shape their surfaces, but each is a unique world, individually interesting to explore. Insights that we gain on one lead to re-examination and new discoveries of another.

What will the next 40 years of small-body exploration bring? I can't predict that, but I (and this is me, not Veverka) am betting we'll be seeing a lot more worlds that are even smaller than the ones I've shown here. Which makes it interesting that I can't find anywhere in my notes that Veverka mentioned Itokawa, the smallest asteroid yet visited by a spacecraft. So I'll close this post with a picture of Itokawa, and wonder what strange and different places we'll explore in the coming decades.

Itokawa rotates under Hayabusa

ISAS / JAXA / Øyvind Guldbrandsen

Itokawa rotates under Hayabusa
This animation consists of 57 separate images captured by the Hayabusa spacecraft as the tiny asteroid Itokawa (535 by 294 by 209 meters in size) rotated underneath it. The images are actually from three separate rotations; they were sorted and lined up into this animation by Øyvind Guldbrandsen of the Norwegian Astronautical Society.
See other posts from October 2013


Or read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, comets, Saturn's small moons, asteroids, comet Tempel 1, explaining science, Saturn's moons, Phobos, asteroid 433 Eros, Deimos, conference report


Ed: 10/17/2013 02:44 CDT

Great collection of images! After a couple of classes I have a much better appreciation of the work that goes into making the data look good and meaningful. Thanks!

Kim Craig: 10/17/2013 11:25 CDT

Thanks Emily, great post. I remember cutting the images and stories of Demos and Phobos from the newspaper as a kid. Along with all the other great images coming back from Mariner 9, I was very proud of NASA and was very excited about the future missions after that, including Mariner 10, Viking and Voyager.

Rafal Kozubek: 10/18/2013 09:48 CDT

I thought the origin of Phobos' grooves is very well explained by ejecta from impacts on Mars hypothesis. See for example the paper 'Morphological and geographical evidence for the origin of Phobos’ grooves from HRSC Mars Express images' by John B. Murray and Jonathan C. Iliffe. Is it not widely agreed upon?

Emily Lakdawalla: 10/18/2013 11:34 CDT

Rafal, that idea, though attractive, has been pretty convincingly disproven. I talked about that in the last paragraph of this post:

Rafal Kozubek: 10/18/2013 12:41 CDT

Thanks! That's a great example of how science works! I found an abstract of this work: and I admit it looks pretty convincing indeed.

Sebastian: 10/19/2013 09:08 CDT

Can anyone give us an update on the launch of the lightsail mission? If there is not enough funding to finance the launch, just set up a kickstarter campaign. Maybe we raise the money?

John Sheff: 10/21/2013 05:17 CDT

I think it's also worthwhile to point out that Joseph Viverka was involved very directly since the beginning of small-bodies exploration. In Carl Sagan's book, "The Cosmic Connection", he describes the moments when the first Phobos images arrived from Mariner 9. He says, "I will never forget those early morning hours in a chilly California November when Joe Veverka (who he had earlier described as a former student of his), a JPL technician, and I were the first human beings ever to see the face of Phobos."

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