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Comets and asteroids

Asteroids and comets are the residual material left from the formation of planets in the inner and outer Solar System respectively. Unlike the planets, many retain material relatively unaltered since their formation 4.6 billion years ago. Their current dynamical and physical properties provide information on their formation and evolution.

The group has developed instrumentation for a number of comet missions including Giotto, Stardust and Rosetta, and we are currently involved in the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission arriving at near-Earth asteroid (NEA) Bennu in August 2018 and the NASA DART asteroid impactor. We have played major roles in mission studies for ESA including MarcoPolo (NEA sample return), Don Quijote (asteroid impact mitigation test), CASTAway (asteroid main belt explorer). We are lead institute for Castalia (to Main Belt Comet 133P/Elst-Pizzaro) currently in selection phase for ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme.

We use a range of ground- and space-based telescopes to study the properties of the nuclei and dust production of comets as well as physical properties of asteroids. Our world-leading Advanced Thermophysical Model provides insight into the importance of thermal processes on the physical and dynamical evolution of small asteroids. Laboratory studies include hypervelocity impacts on asteroid analogue surfaces to investigate momentum transfer relevant to kinetic impactor spacecraft for planetary defense.

Current Projects:

  • Rosetta Ptolemy (Wright)
  • Investigation of physical properties of cometary dust and its role in comet formation processes using data from Rosetta GIADA (Grain Impact Analyser and Dust Accumulator), Stardust DFMI (Dust Flux Monitor Instrument) and other space experiments (Green)
  • Comet Observations: Investigation of physical properties of cometary nuclei as clues to their evolutionary state; nucleus rotation period changes resulting from activity (Green)
  • OSIRIS-Rex, sample return (Franchi)
  • Production of an asteroid light curve catalogue from serendipitous observations by the SuperWASP Exoplanet telescope network, and its use to investigate physical properties of large asteroids (Green, Rozitis).
  • Asteroid observations: thermal infrared photometry of NEAs to determine diameters, albedos, thermal inertia and surface roughness which influence the YORP and Yarkovsky effects; observation campaigns to support current and future missions (Rozitis, Green).