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Space Science

Brazil Nut Effect Explains Mystery of the Boulder-Strewn Surfaces of Asteroids 58

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes When Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft gently maneuvered into a parking orbit around the asteroid Itokawa in September 2005, it conducted a comprehensive photographic survey, the most detailed ever taken of an asteroid. This survey revealed that Itokawa is covered in large boulders that look like ejecta from craters in other parts of the asteroid. But when astronomers added up the total volume of these boulders, it turned out to be greater than the volume of the craters there were supposed to have come from. Other asteroids also show a similarly skewed distribution of large boulders. That has caused some significant head-scratching among astronomers who are at a loss to explain where the boulders come from.

Now an international team has solved the mystery. They say the boulders float to the surface of asteroids in an astrophysical example of the Brazil nut effect. This is the long observed phenomenon in which shaking a mixture of big and small particles causes the larger ones to rise to the top. That's because the shaking creates gaps beneath the large particles that small particles fall into. The result is that the large particles float. The team simulated the shaking effect that collisions between asteroids would produce and say that these vibrations would cause large boulders to float to the surface in a few hours, finally explaining why asteroids have such boulder-strewn surfaces. Problem solved!
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Brazil Nut Effect Explains Mystery of the Boulder-Strewn Surfaces of Asteroids

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