Click for full figure.
By analyzing 600 scattered pieces recovered from a 20-foot wide asteroid that broke-up and landed in the Sudan in 2008, scientists have discovered that some surface pieces were able to reach the ground unscathed because they were on the asteroid’s protected aft as it plowed through the atmosphere.
This asteroid was one of the first ever discovered shortly before impact and then tracked as it hit the atmosphere and broke up, the pieces falling as meteorites. The image to the right, figure 4 of the paper, shows the computer simulation of the asteroid’s break-up, based on the data obtained by mapping the location of its pieces on the ground. From the press release:
“Because of the high speed coming in, we found that the asteroid punched a near vacuum wake in the atmosphere,” says Robertson. “The first fragments came from the sides of the asteroid and tended to move into that wake, where they mixed and fell to the ground with low relative speeds.”
While falling to the ground, the smallest meteorites were soon stopped by friction with the atmosphere, falling close to the breakup point, while larger meteorites were harder to stop and fell further downrange. As a result, most recovered meteorites were found along a narrow 1-km wide strip in the asteroid’s path. “The asteroid melted more and more at the front until the surviving part at the back and bottom-back of the asteroid reached a point where it suddenly collapsed and broke into many pieces,” said Robertson. “The bottom-back surviving as long as it did was because of the shape of the asteroid.”
No longer trapped by the shock from the asteroid itself, the shocks from the individual pieces now repulsed them, sending these final fragments flying outwards with much higher relative speed. “The largest meteorites from 2008 TC3 were spread wider than the small ones, which means that they originated from this final collapse,” said Jenniskens. “Based on where they were found, we concluded that these pieces stayed relatively large all the way to the ground.”
The location of the large meteorites on the ground still reflects their location in the back and bottom-back part of the original asteroid.
While there is a certain randomness in how any asteroid breaks up, this data will help scientists better understand the make-up of future meteorites they find. The bigger more widely scattered pieces likely came from the asteroid’s rear surface.
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