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Shape and spin distributions of asteroid populations from brightness variation estimates and large databases

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Original languageEnglish
Article numberA139
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017
Publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


Context. Many databases on asteroid brightnesses (e.g. ALCDEF, WISE) are potential sources for extensive asteroid shape and spin modelling. Individual lightcurve inversion models require several apparitions and hundreds of data points per target. However, we can analyse the coarse shape and spin distributions over populations of at least thousands of targets even if there are only a few points and one apparition per asteroid. This is done by examining the distribution of the brightness variations observed within the chosen population. Aims. Brightness variation has been proposed as a population-scale rather than individual-target observable in two studies so far. We aim to examine this approach rigorously to establish its theoretical validity, degree of ill-posedness, and practical applicability. Methods. We model the observed brightness variation of a target population by considering its cumulative distribution function (CDF) caused by the joint distribution function of two fundamental shape and spin indicators. These are the shape elongation and the spin latitude of a simple ellipsoidal model. The main advantage of the model is that we can derive analytical basis functions that yield the observed CDF as a function of the shape and spin distribution. The inverse problem can be treated linearly. Even though the inaccuracy of the model is considerable, databases of thousands of targets should yield some information on the distribution. We employ numerical simulations to establish this and analyse photometric databases that provide sufficiently large numbers of data points for reliable brightness variation estimates. Results. We establish the theoretical soundness and the typical accuracy limits of the approach both analytically and numerically. We propose a robust brightness variation observable η based on at least five brightness points per target. We also discuss the weaker reliability and information content of the case of only two points per object. Using simulations, we derive a practical estimate of the model distribution in the (shape, spin)-plane. We show that databases such as Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) yield coarse but robust estimates of this distribution, and as an example compare various asteroid families with each other.


  • Methods: analytical, Methods: numerical, Methods: statistical, Minor planets, asteroids: general, Techniques: photometric

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Field of science, Statistics Finland