Itokawa is a small asteroid visited by the Japanese Hayabusa probe in 2005. Photographs of the asteroid revealed a surface covered in large boulders at high elevations and small pebbles in the valleys. The Brazil nut effect is often invoked to explain size separation in particle mixtures, but Itokawa is so small that any shaking sufficient to sort particles would likely exceed the asteroid’s meager escape velocity. Instead, researchers have suggested an alternative size sorting mechanism: ballistic sorting.
The idea of ballistic sorting is that pebbles that strike boulders will impact and bounce a long way, whereas pebbles that strike other pebbles are likely to rebound only a short way. In both experiments and simulations, the researchers found that this was the case and that mixtures of large and small particles tended to separate just as on the asteroid. The effect is possible on Earth as well, but Itokawa’s small gravitational acceleration makes for more effective size sorting. (Image credit: JAXA; research credit: T. Shinbrot et al.)