Rubble pile
In astronomy
Astronomy is a natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth...

, rubble pile is the informal name for an object that is not a monolith
A monolith is a geological feature such as a mountain, consisting of a single massive stone or rock, or a single piece of rock placed as, or within, a monument...

, consisting instead of numerous pieces of rock that have coalesced under the influence of gravity. Rubble piles have low density because there are large cavities between the various 'chunks' that make them up.

Rubble piles form when an asteroid or moon (which may originally be monolithic) is smashed to pieces by an impact, and the shattered pieces subsequently fall back together, primarily due to self-gravitation. This coalescing usually takes from several hours to weeks.

Scientists first suspected that asteroids are often rubble piles when asteroid densities were first determined. Many of the calculated densities were significantly less than those of meteorites, which in some cases had been determined to be pieces of asteroids.

Many asteroids with low densities are believed to be rubble piles, for example 253 Mathilde
253 Mathilde
253 Mathilde is a main-belt asteroid about 50 km in diameter that was discovered by Johann Palisa in 1885. It has a relatively elliptical orbit that requires more than four years to circle the Sun. This asteroid has an unusually slow rate of rotation, requiring 17.4 days to complete a...

. The mass of Mathilde, as determined by the NEAR Shoemaker
NEAR Shoemaker
The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous - Shoemaker , renamed after its 1996 launch in honor of planetary scientist Eugene M. Shoemaker, was a robotic space probe designed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for NASA to study the near-Earth asteroid Eros from close orbit over a...

 mission, is far too low for the volume observed, considering the surface is rock. Even ice with a thin crust of rock would not provide a suitable density. Also, the large impact craters on Mathilde would have shattered a rigid body. However, the first unambiguous rubble pile to be photographed is 25143 Itokawa
25143 Itokawa
25143 Itokawa is an Apollo and Mars-crosser asteroid. It was the first asteroid to be the target of a sample return mission, the Japanese space probe Hayabusa.-Discovery and naming:...

, which has no obvious impact craters and is thus almost certainly a coalescence of shattered fragments.

The asteroid 433 Eros
433 Eros
433 Eros is a near-Earth asteroid discovered in 1898, and the first asteroid to be orbited by a probe . It is an S-type asteroid approximately 34.4×11.2×11.2 km in size, the second-largest NEA after 1036 Ganymed, and belongs to the Amor group.Eros is a Mars-crosser asteroid, the first known...

, the primary destination of NEAR Shoemaker
NEAR Shoemaker
The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous - Shoemaker , renamed after its 1996 launch in honor of planetary scientist Eugene M. Shoemaker, was a robotic space probe designed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory for NASA to study the near-Earth asteroid Eros from close orbit over a...

, was determined to be riven with cracks but otherwise solid. Other asteroids, possibly including Itokawa, have been found to be contact binaries
Contact binary (asteroid)
In the study of asteroids, a contact binary is caused when two asteroids gravitate toward each other until they touch, forming an oddly-shaped single body. Asteroids suspected of being contact binaries include the unusually elongated 624 Hektor and the bilobated 216 Kleopatra and 4769 Castalia...

, two major bodies touching, with or without rubble filling the boundary.

Large interior voids are possible because of the very low gravity of most asteroids. Despite a fine regolith
Regolith is a layer of loose, heterogeneous material covering solid rock. It includes dust, soil, broken rock, and other related materials and is present on Earth, the Moon, some asteroids, and other terrestrial planets and moons.-Etymology:...

 on the outside (at least to the resolution that has been seen with spacecraft), the asteroid's gravity is so weak that friction between fragments dominates and prevents small pieces from falling inwards and filling up the voids.

All the largest asteroids (1 Ceres
1 Ceres
Ceres, formally 1 Ceres, is the smallest identified dwarf planet in the Solar System and the only one in the asteroid belt. With a diameter of about 950 km, Ceres is by far the largest and most-massive asteroid, comprising about a third of the mass of the asteroid belt. Discovered on 1 January 1801...

, 2 Pallas
2 Pallas
Pallas, formally designated 2 Pallas, is the second asteroid to have been discovered , and one of the largest. It is estimated to constitute 7% of the mass of the asteroid belt, and its diameter of 530–565 km is comparable to, or slightly larger than, that of 4 Vesta. It is however 20%...

, 4 Vesta
4 Vesta
Vesta, formally designated 4 Vesta, is one of the largest asteroids, with a mean diameter of about . It was discovered by Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers on March 29, 1807, and is named after the Roman virgin goddess of home and hearth, Vesta....

, 10 Hygiea
10 Hygiea
10 Hygiea is an asteroid located in the asteroid belt. With somewhat oblong diameters of 350–500 km, and a mass estimated to be 2.9% of the total mass of the belt, it is the fourth largest asteroid by volume and mass...

, 704 Interamnia
704 Interamnia
704 Interamnia is a very large asteroid, with an estimated diameter of 350 kilometres. Its mean distance from the Sun is 3.067 . It was discovered on October 2, 1910 by Vincenzo Cerulli, and named after the Latin name for Teramo, Italy, where Cerulli worked...

) are solid objects without any macroscopic internal porosity. This may be because they have been large enough to withstand all impacts, and have never been shattered. Alternatively, Ceres and some few other of the largest asteroids may be massive enough that, even if they were shattered but not dispersed, their gravity would collapse most voids upon recoalescing. Vesta, at least, has withstood intact one major impact since its formation and shows signs of internal structure from differentiation
Planetary differentiation
In planetary science, planetary differentiation is the process of separating out different constituents of a planetary body as a consequence of their physical or chemical behaviour, where the body develops into compositionally distinct layers; the denser materials of a planet sink to the center,...

in the resultant crater that assure us it is not a rubble pile. This serves as evidence for size as a protection from shattering into rubble.

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