Across the Universe: Featureless Features

At the end of September 2016, Rosetta finally ended its mission by crashing into its comet. This column, about an earlier aspect of the Rosetta mission, first appeared in The Tablet in October 2010


ESO image of asteroid Lutetia, via wikipedia

ESO image of asteroid Lutetia, via wikipedia

Back in July [2010], ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft, en route to a comet rendezvous in 2014, flew past asteroid Lutetia, a 100 km pile of rock orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. The result of that encounter was a hot topic of both the European Planetary Science Conference in Rome in September and a meeting of American planetary astronomers in Pasadena in October [2010].

Studying asteroids has always been challenging. Even in the largest telescopes they’re mere dots of light, too small to show any shapes, much less surface details. We can only infer their nature from the most subtle of hints: how their brightness varies as they spin, how much infrared light they radiate, their visible and infrared colours.

Minerals that contain iron oxide or water reveal themselves by the specific wavelengths of light they absorb. Sorting by colour and brightness, astronomers in the 1970s were able to work out general classes of asteroids analogous to meteorite types: light, reddish “S” asteroids looked like stony meteorites, while darker “C” asteroids were like carbon-rich meteorites.

But Lutetia was brighter than an S-class asteroid, yet its spectrum was flat. It did not absorb light in any of the characteristic colors. The absence of spectral features was its most revealing feature; our only evidence was an absence of evidence.

Our first guess was a surface of pure metallic, unoxidized, iron... perhaps the metal core of a highly evolved planetoid. Thus Lutetia became the case example of a new “M” class of asteroids. But other, very different possibilities were suggested. Maybe it was a primitive mix of very dark low-temperature material with very high-temperature white inclusions -- the famous meteorite Allende was just such a mixture, albeit more dark than light. Likewise the mineral enstatite, made of the common oxides of magnesium and silicon, has no iron and so no absorption features; and there is also a class of enstatite-rich meteorites.

Then, in the mid 1990s, spectra in the infrared showed that at least one side of Lutetia contained minerals that had reacted with, and incorporated, water. None of previously suggested meteorite analogues contain water. This turned all our ideas upside down; the discoverer suggested Lutetia should be given a new classification -- not “M” but “W”.

We’ve since bounced radar waves off Lutetia’s surface. It reflects those waves with more power than typical rock, but less power than a metallic surface would.

So what is Lutetia? Now we’ve sent a robot there; and we still don’t know. Rosetta’s images show Lutetia covered with a thick layer of soil, complete with landslides and a series of grooves like those seen on the dark, primitive moons of Mars. But Lutetia’s surface is not dark. Furthermore, its density (also measured by Rosetta) is much higher, more than any other asteroid. It might be a well compressed chunk of stone; or it could be a very loosely accumulated collection of iron shards covered with rocky dust.

Meanwhile, the Japanese, who recovered a probe from asteroid Itokawa (see Across the Universe, 26 June), are being tight-lipped about what they found inside. I suspect that means they found nothing; they didn’t get a piece of the asteroid. Indeed, since 1991 space probes have visited 11 asteroids; we still don’t know what any of them are made of.

[In fact, they did find many tiny grains of dust with the chemical composition of LL class meteorites.]

It may take a manned mission to an asteroid to answer the question unambiguously. Small asteroids approach Earth all the time; they’d be easier to reach, and return from, than the Moon or Mars.

Humans have a long history of attempting to deduce the unseen from indirect evidence, and our answers have always been ambiguous and contradictory. Ultimately its resolution arrives only when we confront the universe, face to face. We will not know the asteroids, till we become asteroids ourselves.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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