Identifying an asteroid family

Hi there! Today’s post deals with an asteroid family, more precisely the Datura family. The related study is New members of Datura family, by A. Rosaev and E. Plávalová, it has recently been accepted for publication in Planetary and Space Science. The Datura family is a pretty recent one, with only 7 known members when that study started. The authors suggest that 3 other bodies are also members of this family.

Some elements of the dynamics of asteroids

Detailing the dynamics of asteroids would require more than a classical post, here I just aim at giving a few hints.
Asteroids can be found at almost any location in the Solar System, but the combination of the gravitational effects of the planets, of thermal effects, and of the formation of the Solar System, result in preferred locations. Most of the asteroids are in the Main Belt, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. And most of these bodies have semimajor axes between 2.1 and 3.2 astronomical units (AU), i.e. between 315 and 480 millions of km. Among these bodies can be found interesting dynamical phenomena, such as:

  • Mean motion resonances (MMR) with planets, especially Jupiter. These resonances can excite the eccentricities of the asteroids until ejecting them, creating gaps known as Kirkwood gaps. At these locations, there are much less asteroids than nearby.
  • Stable chaos. Basically, a chaotic dynamics means that you cannot predict the orbit at a given accuracy over more than a given timespan, because the orbit is too sensitive to uncertainties on its initial conditions, i.e. initial location and velocity of the asteroid. Sometimes chaos is associated with instability, and the asteroid is ejected. But not always. Stable chaos means that the asteroid is confined in a given zone. You cannot know accurately where the asteroid will be at a given time, but you know that it will be in this zone. Such a phenomenon can be due to the overlap of two mean-motion resonances (Chirikov’s criterion).

Anyway, when an asteroid will or will not be under the influence of such an effect, it will strongly be under the influence of the planets, especially the largest ones. This is why it is more significant to describe their dynamics with proper elements.

Proper elements

Usually, an elliptical orbit is described with orbital elements, which are the semimajor axis a, the eccentricity e, the ascending node Ω, the pericentre ω, the inclination I, and the mean longitude λ. Other quantities can be used, like the mean motion n, which is the orbital frequency.

Because of the large influence of the major planets, these elements present quasiperiodic variations, i.e. sums of periodic (sinusoidal) oscillations. Since it is more significant to give one number, the oscillations which are due to the gravitational perturbers are removed, yielding mean elements, called proper elements. These proper elements are convenient to characterize the dynamics of asteroids.

Asteroid families

Most of the asteroids are thought to result from the disruption (for instance because of a collision) of a pretty large body. The ejecta resulting from this disruption form a family, they share common properties, regarding their orbital dynamics and their composition. A way to guess the membership of an asteroid to a family is to compare its proper elements with others’. This guess can then be enforced by numerical simulations of the orbital motion of these bodies over the ages.

Usually a family is named from its largest member. In 2015, 122 confirmed families and 19 candidates were identified (source: Nesvorný et al. in Asteroids IV, The University of Arizona Press, 2015). Many of these families are very old, i.e. more than 1 Gyr, which complicates their identification in the sense that their orbital elements are more likely to have scattered.
The Datura family is thought to be very young, i.e. some 500 kyr old.

A funny memory: in 2005 David Nesvorný received the Urey Prize of the Division of Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society. This prize was given to him at the annual meeting of the Division, that year in Cambridge, UK. He then gave a lecture on the asteroid families, and presented the “Nesvorný family”, i.e. his father, his wife, and so on.

Datura’s facts

The asteroid (1270) Datura has been discovered in 1930. It orbits the Sun in 3.34 years, and has a semimajor axis of 2.23 AU. As such, it is a member of the inner Main Belt. Its orbit is highly elongated, between 1.77 and 2.70 AU, with an orbital eccentricity of 0.209. It rotates very fast, i.e. in 3.4 hours. Its diameter is about 8.2 km.

It is an S-type asteroid, i.e. it is mainly composed of iron- and magnesium-silicates.

This study

After having identified 10 potential family members from their proper elements, the authors ran backward numerical simulations of them, cloning each asteroid 10 times to account for the uncertainties on their locations. The simulations were ran over 800 kyr, the family being supposed to be younger than that. The simulations first included the 8 planets of the Solar System, and Pluto. The numerical tool is a famous code, Mercury, by John Chambers.

The 10 asteroids identified by the authors include the 7 already known ones, and 3 new ones: (338309) 2002 VR17, 2002 RH291, and 2014 OE206. These are all sub-kilometric bodies. The authors point out that these bodies share a linear correlation between their node and their pericentre.

This study also shows that 2014 OE206 has a chaotic resonant orbit, because of the proximity of the 9:16 MMR with Mars. This resonance also affects 2001 VN36, but this was known before (Nesvorný et al., 2006). The authors also find that this chaotic dynamics can be significantly enhanced by the gravitational perturbations of Ceres and Vesta. Finally, they say that close encounters might happen between (1270) Datura and two of its members: 2003 SQ168 and 2001 VN36.

Another study

Now, to be honest, I must mention another study, The young Datura asteroid family: Spins, shapes, and population estimate, by David Vokrouhlický et al., which was published in Astronomy and Astrophysics in February 2017. That study goes further, in considering the 3 new family members found by Rosaev and Plávalová, and in including other ones, updating the Datura family to 17 members.

This seems to be a kind of anachronism: how could a study be followed by another one, which is published before? In fact, Rosaev and Plávalová announced their results during a conference in 2015, this is why they could be cited by Vokrouhlický et al. Of course, their study should have been published earlier. Those things happen. I do not know the specific case of this study, but sometimes this can be due to a delayed reviewing process, another possibility could be that the authors did not manage to finish the paper earlier… Something that can be noticed is that the study by Vokrouhlický is signed by a team of 13 authors, which is expected to be more efficient than a team of two. But the very truth is that I do not know why they published before. This is anyway awkward.

A perspective

I notice something which could reveal a rich dynamics: the authors show (their Figure 7) a periodic variation of the distance between (1270) Datura and 2003 SQ168, from almost zero to about twice the semimajor axis… This suggests me a horseshoe orbit, i.e. a 1:1 mean-motion resonance, the two bodies sharing the same orbit, but with large variations of their distance. If you look at the orbit of the smallest of these two bodies (here 2003 SQ168) in a reference frame which moves with (1270) Datura, you would see a horseshoe-shaped trajectory. To the best of my knowledge, such a configuration has been detected in the satellites of Saturn between Janus and Epimetheus, suggested for exoplanetary systems, maybe detected between a planet and an asteroid, but never between two asteroids…

By the way, 2003 SQ168 is the asteroid, which has the closest semimajor axis to the one of (1270) Datura, in Rosaev and Plávalová’s paper. Now, when I look at Vokrouhlický et al.’s paper, I see that 2013 ST71 has an even closer semimajor axis. I am then tempted to speculate that these two very small bodies are coorbital to (1270) Datura. Maybe a young family favors such a configuration, which would become unstable over millions of years… Speculation, not fact.


This is actually not an horsehoe orbit. The large variation of the distance is due to the fact that 2003 SQ168 is on a orbit, which is close to the one of (1270) Datura, with a slightly different orbital frequency. Regarding 2013 ST71, a numerical simulation by myself suggests the possibility of a temporary (i.e. unstable) capture in a 1:1 MMR.

To know more…

That’s all for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter.

One thought on “Identifying an asteroid family”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *