A fleeting encounter with an 'inbetweener'

Gravity model for Lutetia (Osiris/MPS) Modelling the gravity field of Lutetia may help solve the puzzle over its high density

There's a problem with the one-off flyby of a planet or an asteroid, and that is you can't go back and do it again - obviously!

But it's a frustration because you're bound to discover stuff in the flyby that merely raises more questions - questions you might be able to answer if you could only go around and do a second visit.

Scientists find themselves in precisely this situation now with the Asteroid Lutetia.

Europe's Rosetta probe whizzed past the giant rock in the summer of 2010 on its way to a comet in 2014.

At the time, it was the biggest asteroid visited by a spacecraft, and some spectacular imagery was obtained by Holger Sierks and his team using the Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (Osiris) on Rosetta.

When the researchers did their analysis of the data, they made a tantalising discovery.

Colin Snodgrass: "Classifying Lutetia is far from easy"

They found that this 121km-long rock was some 1.7 million billion tonnes in mass.

That was actually slightly less than they had anticipated, but with the refined volume they were able also to work out from the flyby, it could be determined that Lutetia had a very high density - one of the highest densities of any known asteroid: 3.4 tonnes per cubic metre.

How come? Well, one exciting possibility is that Lutetia was once partially molten, and although you can't see any obvious evidence for it at the surface, it could have an interior volume containing significant quantities of iron.

To form such a "core", Lutetia would have had to melt as a result of heat released by radioactive isotopes in its rocks. The dense iron would then have sunk to the centre, with the rocky material left floating on top.

Saturn in the background The Osiris camera system caught Saturn in the background of one image

This is the process of differentiation and it is something evident in the fully formed terrestrial planets like Earth and Mercury.

How far such a process could have progressed on Lutetia is uncertain.

The spacecraft's data indicates the asteroid has a very primitive surface - rather like the chondritic meteorites that are sometimes picked up on Earth and which are assumed to have come from bodies that experienced no melting or differentiation.

It is a view being challenged by Dr Ben Weiss from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US.

He has argued that many of the large asteroids out there could have reached a stage of partial melting - even ones that at the surface appear to be unchanged.

He bases that claim on the number of chondritic meteorites that have clearly been magnetised. That suggests these rocks have been near a molten iron core.

"If you do the thermal models, these large asteroids would melt from the inside out because they have this radiogenic heating," he explained.

"The outside is always at space temperatures, and so you always get an un-melted outside. It might be really thin, but we've shown it can also be quite thick. So, we've proposed this idea that there might be asteroids in between un-melted and fully melted - a whole spectrum," Dr Weiss told me.

"It hints at a hidden diversity in the asteroid belt where there may be all kinds of bodies with interesting interiors that are obscured by their relic chondritic surfaces."

Lutetia Close-up, it's possible to see large boulders

But how do you prove Lutetia took the path to core formation? Rosetta is long gone for its appointment with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, and there is no plan currently for another spacecraft to visit Lutetia to follow up these ideas.

Well, Dr Jean-Baptiste Vincent, from the Max-Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), Germany, is poring over Rosetta's high-resolution pictures of Lutetia.

The giant rock is covered in a thick blanket of debris built from millions of years of bombardment by smaller bodies.

In places, you can see where this material has slipped, particularly down the sides of crater walls.

Using knowledge of how the flow of materials in landslides on Earth depends on gravity, Dr Vincent is examining the slopes across the surface of Lutetia to try to measure the local gravity.

Models using either a constant density, or a differentiated internal structure, will produce different local slopes which can be compared with the observed landslides.

"We don't know what is the gravity field of this asteroid; we only know its mass and its density," Dr Vincent said.

In profile What might have been: Lutetia started out on the road to becoming a planet...

"So, what we're trying to do here is run some simulations of what would be the gravity field if Lutetia had different layers of different densities. And then we see if those correlate with some of the morphologic features we observe, such as avalanches or the strange shape of some very big craters."

The colourful image at the top of this page is a product of one of Dr Vincent's simulations. It illustrates the gravity field of Lutetia assuming it was a differentiated body with a porous crust, a silicate un-molten mantle and a rocky core enriched in iron.

The colours indicate the strength of the gravity field at the surface of the asteroid, with red representing the strongest values and blue the weakest.

In this simulation, loose material on the surface of Lutetia would move preferentially from blue areas to red ones during a landslide.

The research still has some way to go before coming to any conclusions.

But it makes you wonder how many other potential "inbetweeners" might be out there still in the asteroid belt.

"There are the really big objects like Ceres and Vesta, but down at Lutetia's size there are 200 objects or so," observed Dr Colin Snodgrass, also of MPS.

"And that's now. In the past, there were likely very many more that didn't survive, were destroyed or got thrown out of the Solar System as the large planets migrated and disturbed everything."

Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    #31 Mathm man

    That stepwise, self resourcing approach is definately the way to go, wherever you get the resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    #28 Entropic man

    I was imagining that a Moon mining operation would be for building Moon bases, spacecraft and making fuel to expand into the solar system.

    #30 englishvote
    If we only mined the far side of the Moon then the objectors would not have any real justification, not that they would stop objecting but ordinary folk would not be bothered if you can't see it from Earth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    People will worry about bringing a large asteroid into earth orbit so it would be best to start with small objects and work up to Km sizes.

    Plus people are going to moan if anybody starts strip mining the Moon or Mars.

    The Save the Moon campaign will get support, while Save the Unnamed 800m Space Rock campaign ain’t going to get much support!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    28. Not by conventional means, but if you built a railgun launcher on the moons surface you could effectively fire your payload back to Earth in a capsule that could handle re-entry and collect it when it lands. (A little maths to ensure no house crushing went on might be handy here!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    #26 Math Man

    The Moon has two advantages. It is close and we already have 300kg of material to analyse..

    The disadvantage? Anything we bring back has to be lifted out of a1mile/second gravity well.

    I vaguely remember one commentator saying that it would not be worth bringing gold back from the Moon at the cost/kg of the Appollo samples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    24. I think the risks of moving an asteroid into Earth oribit outweigh the benefits at the moment. Until we're more adept at handling asteroidal bodies to ensure that it doesn't inadvertently crash!

    I suspect the space exploration doubters would create enough panic to have such a plan vetoed before it got off the ground. (pun incidental!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Good article JA
    The OSIRIS sensor unfortunately only detects very near IR (1,000nm or 1 micron) which limits it to detecting reflected Sunlight from the asteroid. Images in the middle and far IR would have been interesting. Still the main mission is to look at a Comet.
    As regards astromining I would start with the Moon. Lots of Oxygen and metals like aluminium and titanium in the rocks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    24. (23.) yet another alternative:

    semi-autonomous factories which land on asteroids, extract and refine the ore on the spot, and 'slingshot' the ingots into a suitable orbit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    #22 contd

    Alternate options:-

    Do the refining on site using sloar mirrors and only ship the pure quill.

    Use our increasing expertise with gravity slingshots around planets, normally used to accelerate spacecraft, to manoeuvre small asteroid masses. I wonder how difficult it would be to shepherd a small earth-crossing asteroid into earth, or to be safer for a first attempt, lunar orbit?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Why do you have to move it at all? You would simply move it back when the Earth had moved into a more convienient position relative to the position of the Asteroid.

    It's only an issue if you think of short term supply chains. A massive shipment once a year is more efficent than dozens of smaller ones in terms of fuel anyway and in space velocity is meaningless unless it's set for collision.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    On a previous blog we calculated that 50kilonewtons applied over 30 years was enough to deflect a 1km asteroid from an earth impact trajectory.

    Too much energy to deliver in one go, but a solar powered, rock vapour fuelled rocket would do the job.

    These objects, especially the smaller ones, can be moved, but it takes time and patience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I wonder, has any of the 'asteroid miners' here calculated the amount of energy needed to move an object of that size/mass into a new orbit? given that those asteroids are moving at around 25,000km/s, how much kinetic energy is there in a "121km-long rock .. some 1.7 million billion tonnes in mass."?

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Methinks we have a 100 year window to establish ourselves beyond Earth and maintain a high-tech, high resource, or revert to a pastoral, 1800 level scociety indefinately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    One of the other great things about asteroid mining / space manufacture is that once things are set up there is absolutely no environmental impact. With solar mirrors energy is plentiful and cheap and there is practically limitless space and room to expand. Living in space is very complex and difficult but the rewards far outweigh this - and with improving tech it only gets nearer and nearer..

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The advantage of the asteroid belt is that any metal is conveniently divided up into small chunks and it is possible to get to it.

    Planets have a lot more metal but it is mostly tucked away in their cores.

    There are many 10's of thousands of asteroids around the 2-5km size, any iron rich one of these would keep us ALL rich for years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The asteroid belt contains a minute amount of material relative to a planet. There is a lost of left over debris there but not enough to constitute a object even the size of Pluto. There are, however, a large number of metal rich asteroids that could be mined in the future such that we would not face a shortage of metals on Earth. However, we might have moved on from our need of metals by then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.


    We certainly do not have a crisis in resources or energy. We have political and ideological problems and a server lack of motivation.

    At the moment we have abundant resources to meet all of our needs and the technology to provide enough energy for thousands of years

    iron rich asteroids could provide us with almost limitless resources when we need it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The big thing about Lutetia having a higher density then expected is that (as others have said) it makes it a good target for mining.
    In a way it does not matter what metals are there- most of them are potentially useful. One of the most important metals in space is iron - steel is very good for building large substantial structures (eg Earth pressure habitats) & also be useful as reaction mass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    #11, 12,
    The global society we have now probably doesn't have a long lifespan, but pieces of it will probably go on for much longer - probably thousands of years.

    Most elemental resources can ultimately be recycled - or made in specialised reactors. As for energy, once need is great enough we will switch to breeder type tech & there is enough uranium in the natural env to last millions of years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.


    I think englishvote's "few thousand years" would be realistic *if* we competed with each other instead of against; a less confrontational culture (if one can call capitalism a culture) -- without wars and other gratuitous wastes of material and lives -- would enable us to reach any goal (eventually :)).


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