Chaotic dynamics of asteroids

Hi there! Today’s post deals with the fate of an asteroid family. You remember Datura? Now you have Hungaria! Datura is a very young family (< 500 kyr), now you have a very old one, i.e. probably more than 1 Gyr, and you will see that such a long time leaves room for many uncertainties... The paper I present is entitled Planetary chaos and the (In)stability of Hungaria asteroids, by Matija Ćuk and David Nesvorný, it has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The Hungaria asteroids

Usually an asteroid family is a cluster of asteroids in the space of the orbital elements (semimajor axis, eccentricity, inclination), which share, or a supposed to share, a common origin. This suggests that they would originate from the same large body, which would have been destroyed by a collision, its fragments then constituting an asteroid family. Identifying an asteroid family is not an easy task, because once you have identified a cluster, then you must make sure that the asteroids share common physical properties, i.e. composition. You can get this information from spectroscopy, i.e. in comparing their magnitudes in different wavelengths.

The following plot gives the semimajor axis / eccentricity repartition of the asteroids in the inner Solar System, with a magnitude smaller than 15.5. We can clearly see gaps and clusters. Remember that the Earth is at 1 UA, Mars at 1.5 UA, and Jupiter at 5.2. The group of asteroids sharing the orbit of Jupiter constitute the Trojan population. Hungaria is the one on the left, between 1.8 and 2 AU, named after the asteroid 434 Hungaria. The gap at its right corresponds to the 4:1 mean-motion resonance with Jupiter.

Distribution of the asteroids in the inner Solar System, with absolute magnitude < 15.5. Reproduced from the data of The Asteroidal Elements Database. Copyright:

If we look closer at the orbital elements of this Hungaria population, we also see a clustering on the eccentricity / inclination plot (just below).

Eccentricity / Inclination of the asteroids present in the Hungaria zone. Copyright:

This prompted Anne Lemaître (University of Namur, Belgium) to suggest in 1994 that Hungaria constituted an asteroid family. At that time, only 26 of these bodies were identified. We now know more than 4,000 of them.

The origin of this family can be questioned. The point is that these asteroids have different compositions, which would mean that they do not all come from the same body. In other words, only some of them constitute a family. Several dynamics studies, including the one I present today, have been conducted, which suggest that these bodies are very old (> 1 Gyr), and that their orbits might be pretty unstable over Gyrs… which suggests that it is currently emptying.

This raises two questions:

  1. What is the origin of the original Hungaria population?
  2. What is the fate of these bodies?

Beside the possible collisional origin, which is not satisfying for all of these bodies since they do not share the same composition, it has been proposed that they are the remnants of the E-Belt, which in some models of formation of the Solar System was a large population of asteroid, which have essentially been destabilized. Another possibility could be that asteroids might pass by and eventually be trapped in this zone, feeding the population.

Regarding the fate, the leaving asteroids could hit other bodies, or become Trojan of Jupiter, or… who knows? Many options seem possible.

The difficulty of giving a simple answer to these questions comes partly from the fact that these bodies have a chaotic dynamics… but what does that mean?

Chaos, predictability, hyperbolicity, frequency diffusion, stability,… in celestial dynamics

Chaos is a pretty complicated mathematical and physical notion, which has several definitions. A popular one is made by the American mathematician Robert L. Devaney, who said that a system is chaotic if it has sensitive dependence on initial conditions, it is topologically transitive (for any two open sets, some points from one set will eventually hit the other set), and its periodic orbits form a dense set.

Let us make things a little simpler: in celestial mechanics, you assume to have chaos when you are sensitive to the initial conditions, i.e. if you try to simulate the motion of an object with a given uncertainty on its initial conditions, the uncertainties on its future will grow exponentially, making predictions impossible beyond a certain time, which is related to the Lyapunov time. But to be rigorous, this is the definition of hyperbolicity, not of chaos… but never mind.

A chaotic orbit is often thought to be unstable. This is sometimes true, especially if the eccentricity of your object becomes large… but this is not always the same. Contrarily, you can have stable chaos, in which you know that your object is not lost, it is in a given bounded zone… but you cannot be more accurate than that.

Chaos can also be related to the KAM theory (for Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser), which says that when you are chaotic, you have no tores in the dynamics, i.e. periodic orbits. When your orbit is periodic, its orbital frequency is constant. If this frequency varies, then you can suspect chaos… but this is actually frequency diffusion.

And now, since I have confused you enough with the theory, comes another question: what is responsible for chaos? The gravitational action of the other bodies, of course! But this is not a satisfying answer, since a gravitational system is not always chaotic. There are actually many configurations in which a gravitational system could be chaotic. An obvious one is when you have a close encounter with a massive object. An other one is when your object is under the influence of several overlapping mean-motion resonances (Chirikov criterion).

This study is related to the chaos induced by the gravitational action of Mars.

The orbit of Mars

Mars orbits the Sun in 687 days (1.88 year), with an inclination of 1.85° with respect to the ecliptic (the orbit of the Earth), and an eccentricity of 0.0934. This is a pretty large number, which means that the distance Mars – Sun experiences some high amplitude variations. All this is valid for now.

But since the Hungaria asteroids are thought to be present for more than 1 Gyr, a study of their dynamics should consider the variations of the orbit of Mars over such a very long time-span. And this is actually a problem, since the chaos in the inner Solar System prevents you from being accurate enough over such a duration. Recent backward numerical simulations of the orbits of the planets of the Solar System by J. Laskar (Paris Observatory), in which many close initial conditions were considered, led to a statistical description of the past eccentricity of Mars. Some 500 Myr ago, the eccentricity of Mars was most probably close to the current one, but it could also have been close to 0, or close to 0.15… actually it could have taken any number between 0 and 0.15.

The uncertainty on the past eccentricity of Mars leads uncertainty on the past orbital behavior of Solar System objects, including the stability of asteroids. At least two destabilizing processes should be considered: possible close encounters with Mars, and resonances.

Among the resonances likely to destabilize the asteroids over the long term are the gi (i between 1 and 10) and the fj modes. These are secular resonances, i.e. involving the pericentres (g-modes) and the nodes (f-modes) of the planets, the g-modes being doped by the eccentricities, and the f-modes by the inclinations. These modes were originally derived by Brouwer and van Woerkom in 1950, from a secular theory of the eight planets of the Solar System, Pluto having been neglected at that time.

The eccentricity of Mars particularly affects the g4 mode.

This paper

This paper consists of numerical integrations of clones of known asteroids in the Hungaria region. By clones I mean that the motion of each asteroid is simulated several times (21 in this study), with slightly different initial conditions, over 1 Gyr. The authors wanted in particular to test the effect of the uncertainty on the past eccentricity of Mars. For that, they considered two cases: HIGH and LOW.

And the conclusion is this: in the HIGH case, i.e. past high eccentricity of Mars (up to 0.142), less asteroids survive, but only if they experienced close encounters with Mars. In other words, no effect of the secular resonance was detected. This somehow contradicts previous studies, which concluded that the Hungaria population is currently decaying. An explanation for that is that in such phenomena, you often have a remaining tail of stable objects. And it seems make sense to suppose that the currently present objects are this tail, so they are the most stable objects of the original population.

Anyway, this study adds conclusions to previous ones, without unveiling the origin of the Hungaria population. It is pretty frustrating to have no definitive conclusion, but we must keep in mind that we cannot be accurate over 1 Gyr, and that there are several competing models of the evolution of the primordial Solar System, which do not affect the asteroid population in the same way. So, we must admit that we will not know everything.

To know more

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