Rubble pile asteroids are forever

Fred Jourdan, Nicholas E. Timms, Tomoki Nakamura, William D.A. Rickard, Celia Mayers, Steven M. Reddy, David Saxey, Luke Daly, Phil A. Bland, Ela Eroglu, Denis Fougerouse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Rubble piles asteroids consist of reassembled fragments from shattered monolithic asteroids and are much more abundant than previously thought in the solar system. Although monolithic asteroids that are a kilometer in diameter have been predicted to have a lifespan of few 100 million years, it is currently not known how durable rubble pile asteroids are. Here, we show that rubble pile asteroids can survive ambient solar system bombardment processes for extremely long periods and potentially 10 times longer than their monolith counterparts. We studied three regolith dust particles recovered by the Hayabusa space probe from the rubble pile asteroid 25143 Itokawa using electron backscatter diffraction, time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry, atom probe tomography, and 40Ar/39Ar dating techniques. Our results show that the particles have only been affected by shock pressure of ca. 5 to 15 GPa. Two particles have 40Ar/39Ar ages of 4,219 ± 35 and 4,149 ± 41 My and when combined with thermal and diffusion models; these results constrain the formation age of the rubble pile structure to ≥4.2 billion years ago. Such a long survival time for an asteroid is attributed to the shock-absorbent nature of rubble pile material and suggests that rubble piles are hard to destroy once they are created. Our results suggest that rubble piles are probably more abundant in the asteroid belt than previously thought and provide constrain to help develop mitigation strategies to prevent asteroid collisions with Earth.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2214353120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2023 Jan 31


  • Ar/Ar dating
  • asteroid
  • asteroid breakup
  • impacts
  • sample return mission


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