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Asteroids: Astronomical and Geological Bodies

ukyfFor most of the time since the discovery of (1) Ceres in 1801, asteroids, those enigmatic lumps of rock (?) mostly condemned to wander the Solar System between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, have been little more than flecks of light on a photographic plate or CCD detector. How things have changed! Spurred on by the realisation that asteroids can deal life-extinguishing hammer-blows to the Earth, truly stupefying advances in the technology of detectors (including their use in automated discovery and photometric systems) and (since 1991) the attention of robotic spacecraft, the nature, diversity and significance of these bodies are now major areas of intense study.

Burbine’s book is intended as ‘...a reference book for anybody wanting to learn more...’ about the smaller bodies of the Solar System (which term now includes, controversially at least in the popular eye, Pluto – or should I say (134340) Pluto?). I believe it succeeds in this objective. Its best feature is the comprehensive coverage of the subject it provides. All the arcana needed to understand asteroids is here, everything from the history of discovery, orbital mechanics, spectroscopy, photometry and more to the threats these bodies pose to the Earth’s ecosystems. The main classes of objects (of which there now seems to be a bewildering variety) are described and there are also competent introductions to the supporting cast of meteorites, comets and related bodies. All of this is commendably up to date, with the initial results of the latest spacecraft missions (Rosetta/Philae, New Horizons) included. The duplication of many of the more complex illustrations as colour plates is to be commended.

However, the desire to cover so much background material is also, perhaps, the book’s one failing. Some of the explanations, for example those of orbital mechanics, are somewhat cryptic and often become little more than jargon. Though I consider myself reasonably well-versed in some of these subjects, I did find such material difficult to follow in places. In Burbine’s defence he does suggest that the reader should have a ‘college-level knowledge’ of physics, mathematics, chemistry, geology and astronomy…'! Phew, who said the age of the polymath was dead?

Overall, this is a book to be recommended. As a ‘one-stop shop’ on all matters asteroidal it could hardly be bettered. Those wanting to know more about the geology of these bodies will have to look elsewhere, but they can start with this book’s excellent reference list.

Reviewed by Trevor F Emmett

ASTEROIDS: ASTRONOMICAL AND GEOLOGICAL BODIES by T.H. Burbine. Cambridge Planetary Science Series no. 17. Cambridge University Press 2016 ISBN: 9781107096844. 394 pp (hbk) List Price: £49.99. W: .