Asteroidal regoliths

Kevin R. Housen, Laurel L. Wilkening, Clark R. Chapman, Richard Greenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

139 Scopus citations


We develop a physical model for the evolution of regoliths on small bodies and apply it to the asteroids and meteorite parent bodies. The model considers global deposition of that fraction of cratering ejecta that is not lost to space. It follows the build up of regolith on a typical region, removed from the larger craters which are the source of most regolith blankets. Later in the evolution, larger craters saturate the surface and are incorporated into the typical region; their net ejection of materials to space causes the elevation of the typical region to decrease and once-buried regolith becomes susceptible to ejection or gardening. The model is applied to cases of both strong, cohesive bodies and to bodies of weak, unconsolidated materials. Evolution of regolith depths and gardening rates are followed until a sufficiently large impact occurs that fractures the entire asteroid. (Larger asteroids are not dispersed, however, and evolve mergaregoliths from multiple generations of surficial regoliths mixed into their interiors.) We find that large, strong asteroids generate surficial regoliths of a few kilometers depth while strong asteroids smaller than 10-km diameter generate negligible regoliths. Our model does not treat large, weak asteroids, because their cratering ejecta fail to surround such bodies; regolith evolution is probably similar to that of the Moon. Small, weak asteroids of 1- to 10-km diameter generate centimeter- to meter-scale regoliths. In all cases studied, blanketing rates exceed excavation rates, so asteroid regoliths are rarely, if ever, gardened and should be very immature measured by lunar standards. They should exhibit many of the characteristics of the brecciated, gas-rich meteorites; intact foreign clasts, relatively low-exposure durations to galactic and solar cosmic rays low solar gas contents, minimal evidence for vitrification and agglutinate formation, etc. Both large, strong asteroids and small, weak ones provide regolith environments compatible with those inferred for the parent bodies of brecciated meteorites. But from volumetric calculations, we conclude that most brecciated meteorites formed on the surfaces of, and were recycled through the interiors of, parent bodies at least several tens of kilometers in diameter. The implications of our regolith model are consistent with properties inferred for asteroid regoliths from a variety of astronomical measurements of asteroids, although such data do not constrain regolith properties nearly as strongly as meteoritical evidence Our picture of substantial asteroidal regoliths produced predominantly by blanketing differs from earlier hypotheses that asteroidal regoliths might be thin or absent and that short surface exposure of asteroidal materials is due chiefly to erosion rather than blanketing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)317-351
Number of pages35
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1979
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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