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 Twin asteroid 1999 KW4.
Credit: Cornell University, Arecibo telescope radar images.

Jul 11, 2008
Binary Asteroids

What causes asteroids to split apart?

Scientists have been studying small planetoids called Near Earth Objects (NEO) for the past thirty years. Some concerns have arisen about whether large space rocks could strike our planet since current theories suggest that one of them caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Earth has supposedly been struck many times by asteroids and comets, so astronomers have been tracking as many objects as they can find to see if any of them cross the plane of Earth's orbit.

As the catalog of objects has increased, about 15% of the asteroids discovered are binary. That is, they are two objects orbiting one another around a common center of mass. A recent press release announced that such pairs could result from the effects of sunlight causing an increase in the spin-rate of an asteroid. Since they are said to be loosely compacted "rubble piles", the angular momentum on the equator increases to such a degree that loosely conglomerated rocks are thrown out of the mass and form another loosely compacted rubble pile in orbit about the first.

In the image at the top of the page, Asteroid 1999 KW4 Beta is thought to have been thrown out of its parent, Alpha, because of the notable equatorial ridge that surrounds the asteroid. It resembles a much smaller version of Saturn's moon Iapetus – and in fact has a lenticular shape reminiscent of another moon, Atlas.

Of course, the rubble pile theory of asteroid composition was created to help explain the mass anomalies that have been seen in asteroid crater studies and in such experiments as Deep Impact, along with the regolith migration found on Itokawa and Eros. Because the gravity on asteroids is minute, what looks like banding, landslides and layering of surface rocks has been theorized to be from micro-meteor impacts shaking the asteroids. Over long periods of time, the shaking sorts the materials by size and density in the same way that a jar of sand and pebbles will sort itself when it is shaken.

Some asteroids (and moons) have craters that should have shattered them into fragments when they were hit by whatever took away one third of a hemisphere or punched a hole more than halfway to the other side. The only suitable explanation, according to gravity-based models of asteroid behavior, is that they are loosely compacted; when they are hit by other large objects they act like big sand piles and absorb the impacts without shattering. They have no hard crust to begin with so they haven't fractured despite repeated pounding.

The electric model of asteroid formation does not require that one body crash into another one for there to be craters. Electric arcs have the ability to cut surfaces, scoop out material and then accelerate it into space, leaving clean cuts, deep pits and chaotic topography. The effect is commonly called electric discharge machining (EDM). Comets also exhibit surface features that are the same as what has been seen on asteroids, leading Electric Universe theorists to speculate that the two are really one thing and not "dirty snowballs" vs. rocky bodies.

If the electrical stress does become too great within an asteroid – when it enters the magnetosphere of a planet like Earth, for instance, it may explode into tiny fragments that burn up. If the electrical stress is not too great as an asteroid flies through another e-field it might split into two large pieces instead of exploding. The same equalization of potential could take place but leave behind a pair of orbiting twins that continue on their way.

A theory of electrical fissioning might provide a more reasonable hypothesis than sunlight and angular momentum, although the sunlight theory has the advantage of acceding to the billion-year timescale that dominates science today. Everything takes so much time that the numbers no longer have meaning and is relegated to a past so remote that it is unimaginable. To say that sunlight requires a billion years to spilt an asteroid is science; yet saying that a bluebird can do it is a myth. But given a billion year old bluebird, who knows?

People are typically uncomfortable with events that happen quickly in a large frame of reference. Floods, earthquakes and lightning are frightening and unpredictable when they take place on the scale of cities and counties. No one wants to imagine that such things could take place on the planetary or stellar scale. However, each of the phenomena that we consider in these pages interrelate in ways that make the conclusion compelling: electricity forms most of what we see in the Solar System and beyond.

By Stephen Smith

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The Electric Sky and The Electric Universe available now!


Authors David Talbott and Wallace Thornhill introduce the reader to an age of planetary instability and earthshaking electrical events in ancient times. If their hypothesis is correct, it could not fail to alter many paths of scientific investigation.

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Professor of engineering Donald Scott systematically unravels the myths of the "Big Bang" cosmology, and he does so without resorting to black holes, dark matter, dark energy, neutron stars, magnetic "reconnection", or any other fictions needed to prop up a failed theory.

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In language designed for scientists and non-scientists alike, authors Wallace Thornhill and David Talbott show that even the greatest surprises of the space age are predictable patterns in an electric universe.

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David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
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