The Yarkovsky effect is a force acting on a rotating body in space caused by the anisotropic emission of thermalphotons, which carry momentum. It is usually considered in relation to meteoroids or small asteroids (about 10 cm to 10 km in diameter), as its influence is most significant for these bodies.
The effect was discovered by the Polish-Russian civil engineer Ivan Osipovich Yarkovsky (1844–1902), who worked in Russia on scientific problems in his spare time. Writing in a pamphlet around the year 1900, Yarkovsky noted that the daily heating of a rotating object in space would cause it to experience a force that, while tiny, could lead to large long-term effects in the orbits of small bodies, especially meteoroids and small asteroids. Yarkovsky’s insight would have been forgotten had it not been for the Estonian astronomer Ernst J. Öpik (1893–1985), who read Yarkovsky’s pamphlet sometime around 1909. Decades later, Öpik, recalling the pamphlet from memory, discussed the possible importance of the Yarkovsky effect on movement of meteoroids about the Solar System.
The Yarkovsky effect is a consequence of the fact that change in the temperature of an object warmed by radiation (and therefore the intensity of thermal radiation from the object) lags behind changes in the incoming radiation. That is, the surface of the object takes time to become warm when first illuminated, and takes time to cool down when illumination stops. In general there are two components to the effect:
- Diurnal effect: On a rotating body illuminated by the Sun (e.g. an asteroid or the Earth), the surface is warmed by solar radiation during the day, and cools at night. Due to the thermal properties of the surface, there is a lag between the absorption of radiation from the Sun, and the emission of radiation as heat, so the warmest point on a rotating body occurs around the “2 PM” site on the surface, or slightly after noon. This results in a difference between the directions of absorption and re-emission of radiation, which yields a net force along the direction of motion of the orbit. If the object is a prograde rotator, the force is in the direction of motion of the orbit, and causes the semi-major axis of the orbit to increase steadily; the object spirals away from the Sun. A retrograde rotator spirals inward. The diurnal effect is the dominant component for bodies with diameter greater than about 100 m.
- Seasonal effect: This is easiest to understand for the idealised case of a non-rotating body orbiting the Sun, for which each “year” consists of exactly one “day”. As it travels around its orbit, the “dusk” hemisphere which has been heated over a long preceding time period is invariably in the direction of orbital motion. The excess of thermal radiation in this direction causes a braking force that always causes spiraling inward toward the Sun. In practice, for rotating bodies, this seasonal effect increases along with the axial tilt. It dominates only if the diurnal effect is small enough. This may occur because of very rapid rotation (no time to cool off on the night side, hence an almost uniform longitudinal temperature distribution), small size (the whole body is heated throughout) or an axial tilt close to 90°. The seasonal effect is more important for smaller asteroid fragments (from a few metres up to about 100 m), provided their surfaces are not covered by an insulating regolith layer and they do not have exceedingly slow rotations. Additionally, on very long timescales over which the spin axis of the body may be repeatedly changed due to collisions (and hence also the direction of the diurnal effect changes), the seasonal effect will also tend to dominate.
In general, the effect is size-dependent, and will affect the semi-major axis of smaller asteroids, while leaving large asteroids practically unaffected. For kilometre-sized asteroids, the Yarkovsky effect is minuscule over short periods: the force on asteroid 6489 Golevka has been estimated at 0.25 newtons, for a net acceleration of 10−12 m/s2. But it is steady; over millions of years an asteroid’s orbit can be perturbed enough to transport it from the asteroid belt to the inner Solar System.
The mechanism is more complicated for bodies in strongly eccentric orbits.