Levitating plastic beads mimic the physics of spinning asteroids

Whirling clumps of particles split up like space rocks falling to pieces

a group of plastic beads hovering in midair

Levitated by sound waves, scores of plastic beads clump together and form loosely bound structures (one pictured) that mimic the physics of some asteroids.

M. Lim, B. VanSaders, A. Souslov, H. Jaeger

Some asteroids can barely hold it together.

Rather than solid lumps of rock, ‘rubble pile’ asteroids are loose collections of material, which can split apart as they rotate (SN: 3/16/20). To understand the inner workings of such asteroids, one team of scientists turned to levitating plastic beads. The beads clump together, forming collections that can spin and break up, physicist Melody Lim of the University of Chicago reported March 15 at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Chicago.

It’s an elegant dance that mimics the physics of asteroid formation, which happens too slowly to observe in real-life space rocks. “These ‘tabletop asteroids’ compress phenomena that take place over kilometers [and] over hundreds of thousands of years to just centimeters and seconds in the lab,” Lim said. The results are also reported in a paper accepted in Physical Review X.

Lim and colleagues used sound waves to levitate the plastic beads, which arranged themselves into two-dimensional clumps. Acoustic forces attract the beads to one another, mimicking the gravitational attraction between bits of debris in space. Separate clumps then coalesced similarly to how asteroids are thought to glom onto one another to grow.

Levitated by sound waves, plastic beads, which are about 150 micrometers across, clump together into a loosely bound 2-D conglomeration (shown at 1/50th the original speed). When spun too fast, one such structure deforms then splits apart (shown at 1/70th the original speed).

When the experimenters gave the structures a spin using the sound waves, the clumps changed shape above a certain speed, becoming elongated. That could help scientists understand why ‘rubble pile’ asteroids, can have odd structures, such as the ‘spinning tops’ formed by asteroids Bennu and Ryugu (SN: 12/18/18).

Eventually, the fast-spinning clumps broke apart. This observation could help explain why asteroids are typically seen to spin up to a certain rate, but not beyond: Speed demons get split up.

Physics writer Emily Conover has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Chicago. She is a two-time winner of the D.C. Science Writers’ Association Newsbrief award.

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