In the 19th century, Yarkovsky realised that the infrared radiation escaping from a body warmed by the Sun carries off momentum as well as heat. Translated into modern physics, each photon escaping carries away a momentum p = E/c where E (=hν) is its energy and c is the speed of light. Radzievskii applied the photon idea to rotation based on changes in albedo and Paddack and O'Keefe realised that shape was a much more effective means of altering a body's spin rate. Paddack and Rhee suggested that the YORP effect may be the cause of rotational bursting and eventual elimination from the solar system of small asymmetric particles
In 2007 there was direct observational confirmation of the YORP effect on the small asteroids 54509 YORP (then named ) and 1862 Apollo. The spin rate of 54509 YORP will double in just 600,000 years, and the YORP effect can also alter the axial tilt and precession rate, so that the entire suite of YORP phenomena can send asteroids into interesting resonant spin states, and helps explain the existence of binary asteroids
Observations show that asteroids larger than 125 km in diameter have rotation rates that follow a Maxwellian frequency distribution, while smaller asteroids (in the 50 to 125 km size range) show a small excess of fast rotators. The smallest asteroids (size less than 50 km) show a clear excess of very fast and slow rotators, and this becomes even more pronounced as smaller populations are measured. These results suggest that one or more size-dependent mechanisms are depopulating the centre of the spin rate distribution in favour of the extremes. The YORP effect is a prime candidate. It is not capable of significantly modifying the spin rates of large asteroids by itself, however, so a different explanation must be sought for objects such as 253 Mathilde.
Assume a rotating spherical asteroid has two wedges attached to its equator. The reaction force from photons departing from any given surface element of the sphere will be normal to the surface, such that no torque is produced. Energy reradiated from the wedges, however, can produce a torque because the wedge faces are not parallel to the sphere's surface. An object with some "windmill" asymmetry can therefore be subjected to minuscule torque forces that will tend to spin it up or down as well as make its axis of rotation precess.
In the long term, the object's changing obliquity and rotation rate may wander randomly, chaotically or regularly, depending on several factors. For example, assuming the Sun remains on its equator, asteroid 951 Gaspra, with a radius of 6 km and a semi-major axis of 2.21 AU, would in 240 Ma (240 million years) go from a rotation period of 12 h to 6 h and vice versa. If 243 Ida were given the same radius and orbit values as Gaspra, it would spin up or down twice as fast, while a body with Phobos' shape would take several billion years to change its spin by the same amount.
Size as well as shape affects the amount of the effect. Smaller objects will spin up or down much more quickly. If Gaspra were smaller by a factor of 10 (to a radius of 500 m), its spin will halve or double in just a few million years. Similarly, the YORP effect intensifies for objects closer to the Sun. At 1 AU, Gaspra would double/halve its spin rate in a mere 100,000 years. After one million years, its period may shrink to ~2 h, at which point it could start to break apart.
This is one mechanism through which binary asteroids may form, and it may be more common than collisions and planetary near-encounter tidal disruption as the primary means of binary formation.
Asteroid was later named 54509 YORP to honor its part in the confirmation of this phenomenon.