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Standard asteroid physical characteristics

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For the majority of numbered asteroids, almost nothing is known apart from a few physical parameters. Hundreds of these (See Category:Asteroid stubs) have their own Space Wiki page, where the only information is their name and discovery circumstances plus a table of orbital elements and some physical characteristics (often only estimated).

The aim of this page is to provide a reference explaining where the physical data for such generic asteroids comes from.

Please note that due to the various ages of the single asteroid articles, the reference below may not be accurate for all asteroid articles.


Data from the IRAS minor planet survey[1] or the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) minor planet survey[2] (available at the Planetary Data System Small Bodies Node (PDS)) is the usual source of the diameter.

For many asteroids, lightcurve analysis provides estimates of pole direction and diameter ratios. Pre-1995 estimates collected by Per Magnusson[3] are tabulated in the PDS,[4] with the most reliable data being the syntheses labeled in the data tables as "Synth". More recent determinations for several dozens of asteroids are collected at the web page of a finnish research group in Helsinki which is running a systematic campaign to determine poles and shape models from lightcurves.[5]

These data can be used to obtain a better estimate of dimensions. A body's dimensions are usually given as a tri-axial ellipsoid, the axes of which are listed in decreasing order as a×b×c. If we have the diameter ratios μ = a/b, ν = b/c from lightcurves, and an IRAS mean diameter d, one sets the geometric mean of the diameters d = (abc)^\frac{1}{3}\,\! for consistency, and obtains the three diameters:

a= d\,(\mu^2\nu)^{\frac{1}{3}}\,\!
b= d\,\left(\frac{\nu}{\mu}\right)^{\frac{1}{3}}\,\!
c= \frac{d}{(\nu^2\mu)^{\frac{1}{3}}}\,\!


Barring detailed mass determinations,[6] the mass M can be estimated from the diameter and (assumed) density values ρ worked out as below.

M = \frac{\pi abc\rho}{6}\,\!

Such estimates can be indicated as approximate by use of a tilde "~". Besides these "guesstimates", masses can be obtained for the larger asteroids by solving for the perturbations they cause in each others' orbits,[7] or when the asteroid has an orbiting companion of known orbital radius. The masses of the largest asterois 1 Ceres, 2 Pallas, and 4 Vesta can also be obtained from perturbations of Mars.[8] While these perturbations are tiny, they can be accurately measured from radar ranging data from the Earth to spacecraft on the surface of Mars, such as the Viking landers.


Apart from a few asteroids whose densities have been investigated,[6] one has to resort to enlightened guesswork.

For many asteroids a value of ρ~2 g/cm3 has been assumed.

However, a better guess can be obtained by taking into account the asteroid's spectral type. A recent paper gives calculations for the mean densities of C, S, and M class asteroids as 1.38, 2.71, and 5.32 g/cm3.[9] (Here "C" included Tholen classes C, D, P, T, B, G, and F, while "S" included Tholen classes S, K, Q, V, R, A, and E). Assuming these values (rather than the present ~2 g/cm3) is a better guess.

Surface gravity

This is given by:


Where G = 6.6742×10−11 m3s-2kg-1 is the Gravitational constant, M is the mass of the asteroid, and d its diameter.

However, for irregular bodies, this is approximate and there is a question of which diameter to use. Using the largest diameter as per


seems the most consistent since then at least the entire mass of the asteroid is attracting. In any case true local gravity would vary with the observer's position on the asteroid, and the centrifugal effect of the asteroid's rotation can also be a very significant factor.

Escape velocity

This is given by


with the same issues of which diameter to use as for surface gravity, in the sense that an object launched from a deep crater on the asteroid's surface (or otherwise nearer to the asteroid's geometric centre) will be more tightly bound. However, escape velocity is less sensitive to the diameter used than the surface gravity can be.

Rotation period

Usually taken from lightcurve parameters at the PDS.[10]

Spectral class

Usually taken from the Tholen classification at the PDS.[11]

Absolute magnitude

Usually given by the IRAS minor planet survey[1] or the MSX minor planet survey[2] (available at the PDS).


Usually given by the IRAS minor planet survey[1] or the MSX minor planet survey[2] (available at the PDS). These are geometric albedos. If there is no IRAS/MSX data a rough average of 0.1 can be used.

Surface temperature


The simplest method which gives sensible results is to assume the asteroid behaves as a greybody in equilibrium with the incident solar radiation. Then, its mean temperature is then obtained by equating the mean incident and radiated heat power. The total incident power is:

R_{\mbox{in}} = \frac{(1-A)L_0\pi r^2}{4\pi a^2},

where A\,\! is the asteroid albedo (precisely, the Bond albedo), a\,\! its semi-major axis, L_0\,\! is the solar luminosity (i.e. total power output 3.827×1026 W), and r the asteroid's radius. It has been assumed that: the absorptivity is 1-A, the asteroid is spherical, it is on a circular orbit, and that the Sun's energy output is isotropic.

Using a greybody version of the Stefan-Boltzmann law, the radiated power (from the entire spherical surface of the asteroid) is:

R_{\mbox{out}} = 4\pi r^2 \epsilon \sigma T^4\frac{}{},

where \sigma\,\! is the Stefan-Boltzmann constant (5.6704×10-8 W/m²K4), T is the temperature in kelvins, and \epsilon\,\! is the asteroid's infra-red emissivity. Equating R_{\mbox{in}} = R_{\mbox{out}}, one obtains

T = \left ( \frac{(1 - A) L_0}{\epsilon \sigma 16 \pi a^2} \right )^{1/4}\,\!

The standard value of \epsilon=0.9, estimated from detailed observations of a few of the large asteroids is used.

While this method gives a fairly good estimate of the average surface temperature, the local temperature varies greatly, as is typical for bodies without atmospheres.


A rough estimate of the maximum temperature can be obtained by assuming that when the sun is overhead, the surface is in thermal equilibrium with the instantaneous solar radiation. This gives average "sub-solar" temperature of

T_{ss} = \sqrt{2}\, T \approx 1.41\, T,

where T is the average temperature calculated as above.

At perihelion, the radiation is maximised, and

T_{ss}^{\rm max} = \sqrt{\frac{2}{1-e}}\  T,

where e\,\! is the eccentricity of the orbit.

Temperature measurements and regular temperature variations

Infra-red observations are commonly combined with albedo to measure the temperature more directly. For example L.F.Lim et al [Icarus, Vo. 173, 385 (2005)] does this for 29 asteroids. However, it should be pointed out that these are measurements for a particular observing day, and that the asteroid's surface temperature will change in a regular way depending on its distance from the Sun. From the Stefan-Boltzmann calculation above,

T = {\rm constant} \times \frac{1}{\sqrt{d}},

where d\,\! is the distance from the Sun on any particular day. If the day of the relevant observations is known, the distance from the Sun on that day can be obtained online from e.g. the NASA orbit calculator,[12] and corresponding temperature estimates at perihelion, aphelion, etc. can be obtained from the expression above.

Albedo inaccuracy problem

There is a snag when using these expressions to estimate the temperature of a particular asteroid. The calculation requires the Bond albedo A (the proportion of total incoming power reflected, taking into account all directions), while the IRAS and MSX albedo data that is available for asteroids gives only the geometric albedo p which characterises only the strength of light reflected back to the source (the Sun).

While these two albedos are correlated, the numerical factor between them depends in a very nontrivial way on the surface properties. Actual measurements of Bond albedo are not forthcoming for the majority of asteroids because they require measurements from high phase angles that can only be acquired by spacecraft that pass near or beyond the asteroid belt. Some complicated modelling of surface and thermal properties can lead to estimates of the Bond albedo given the geometric one, but this far is beyond the scope of a quick estimate for these articles. It can be obtained for some asteroids from scientific publications.

For want of a better alternative for most asteroids, the best that can be done here is to assume that these two albedos are equal, but keep in mind that there is an inherent inaccuracy in the resulting temperature values.

How large is this inaccuracy?

A glance at the examples in this table shows that for bodies in the asteroid albedo range, the typical difference between Bond and geometric albedo is 20% or less, with either quantity capable of being larger. Since the calculated temperature varies as (1-A)1/4, the dependence is fairly weak for typical asteroid A≈p values of 0.05−0.3.

The typical inaccuracy in calculated temperature from this source alone is then found to be about 2%. This translates to an uncertainty of about ±5 K for maximum temperatures.

Other common data

Some other information for large numbers of asteroids can be found at the Planetary Data System Small Bodies Node.[13] Up-to date information on pole orientation of several dozen asteroids is provided by Dr., Doc. Mikko Kaasalainen,[5] and can be used to determine axial tilt.

Another source of useful information is NASA's orbit calculator.[12]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 IRAS Minor Planet Survey Supplemental IRAS Minor Planet Survey. PDS Asteroid/Dust Archive. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) Infrared Minor Planet Survey. PDS Asteroid/Dust Archive. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  3. Magnusson, Per (1989). “Pole determinations of asteroids”, Richard P. Binzel, Tom Gehrels, and Mildred S. Matthews Asteroids II. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1180-1190.
  4. Asteroid Spin Vectors. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Modelled asteroids. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  6. 6.0 6.1 For example Asteroid Densities Compilation. PDS Asteroid/Dust Archive. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  7. Hilton, James L. (November 30, 1999). Masses of the Largest Asteroids. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  8. Pitjeva, E. V.. Estimations of Masses of the Largest Asteroids and the Main Asteroid Belt From Ranging to Planets, Mars Orbiters And Landers (PDF). Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  9. Krasinsky, George A., Elena V. Pitjeva, Mikhail V. Vasilyev, and Eleonora I. Yagudina (July 2002). "Hidden Mass in the Asteroid Belt". Icarus 158 (1): 98-105. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  10. Asteroid Lightcurve Parameters. PDS Asteroid/Dust Archive. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  11. Asteroid Taxonomies. PDS Asteroid/Dust Archive. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Orbit Diagrams. NASA. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
  13. Asteroid Data Sets. PDS Asteroid/Dust Archive. Retrieved on 2006-06-18.
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