Tilting and retilting our Moon

Hi there! The Moon is so close and so familiar to us, but I realize this is my first post on it. Today I present you a paper entitled South Pole Aitken Basin magnetic anomalies: Evidence for the true polar wander of Moon and a lunar dynamo reversal, by Jafar Arkani-Hamed and Daniel Boutin, which will be published soon in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The idea is to track the variations of the magnetic field of the Moon along its history, as a signature of the motion of its rotation pole, i.e. of a polar wander.

Our Moon’s facts

The Moon is a fascinating object, as it is the only known natural satellite of the Earth, and we see it as large as the Sun in our sky. It orbits around the Earth at a distance of almost 400,000 km in 27.3 days. It shows us always the same face, as a result of a tidal locking of its rotation, making it synchronous, i.e. its spin period is equal to its orbital period.

Moonset over Paris, France. Copyright: Josselin Desmars.

Something interesting is its pretty large size, i.e. its radius is one fourth of the one of the Earth. It is widely admitted that the Moon and the Earth have a common origin, i.e. either a proto-Earth has been impacted by a Mars-sized impactor, which split it between the Earth and the Moon, or the Earth-Moon system results from the collision of two objects of almost the same size. In both cases, the Earth and the Moon would have been pretty hot just after the impact, which also means active… and this has implications for the magnetic field.

A very weak magnetic field has been detected for the Moon, but which is very different from the Earth’s. The magnetic field of the Earth, or geomagnetic field, has the signature of a dipolar one, in the sense that it has a clear orientation. This happens when the rotating core acts as a dynamo. The north magnetic pole is some 10° shifted from the spin pole of the Earth, and has an amplitude between 25 and 65 μT (micro-teslas). However, the magnetic field of the Moon, measured at its surface, does not present a clear orientation, and never reaches 1 μT. Its origin is thus not obvious, even if we could imagine that the early Moon was active enough to harbor a dynamo, from which the measured magnetic field would be a signature… But the absence of preferred orientation is confusing.

The core dynamo

The core of the Earth spins, it is surrounded by liquid iron, which is conductive, and there is convection in this fluid layer, which is driven by the heat flux diffusing from the core to the surface of the Earth. This process creates and maintains a magnetic field.

For the Earth, the core dynamo is assumed to account for 80 to 90% of the total magnetic field. This results in a preferred orientation. Other processes that could create a magnetic field are a global asymmetry of the electric charges of the planet, or the presence of an external magnetic field, for instance due to a star.

A dynamo could be expected for many planetary objects, which would be large enough to harbor a global fluid layer. It is usually thought that the detection of a magnetic field is a clue for the presence of a global ocean. Such a magnetic field has been detected for Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is probably due to an outer liquid layer coating its iron core.

The Moon has probably no dynamo, but could have had one in the past. The measured magnetic field could be its signature. A question is: what could have driven this dynamo? The early Moon was hotter than the current one, so a magnetic field existed at that time. And after that, the Moon experienced intense episodes of bombardment, like the Late Heavy Bombardment. The resulting impacts affected the orientation of the Moon, its shape, and also its temperature. This could have itself triggered a revival of the magnetic field, particularly for the biggest impact.

The study I present today deals with measurements of the magnetic field in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, not to be confused with the Aitken crater, which is present in its region. The South Pole-Aitken Basin is one of the largest known impact crater in the Solar System, with a diameter of 2,500 km and a depth of 13 km. This basin contains other craters, which means that it is older than all of them, its age is estimated to be 4.1 Gyr (gigayears, i.e. billions of years). Measurements of the magnetic field in each of these craters could give its evolution over the ages. But why is it possible?

The magnetic field as a signature of the history

When a material is surrounded by a magnetic field, it can become magnetic itself. This phenomenon is known as induced magnetization, and depends on the magnetic susceptibility of the material, i.e. the efficiency of this process depends on the material. Once the surrounding magnetic field has disappeared, the material might remain magnetic anyway, i.e. have its remanent magnetic field. This is what has been measured by the Lunar Prospector mission, whose data originated this study.
An issue is the temperature. The impact should be hot enough to trigger the magnetic field, which implies that the material would be hot, but it cannot be magnetized if it is too hot. Below a Curie temperature, the process of induced magnetization just does not work. You can even demagnetize a material in heating it. For the magnetite, which is a mineral containing iron and present on the Moon, the Curie temperature is 860 K, i.e. 587°C, or 1089°F.

Lunar Prospector

This study uses data of the Lunar Prospector mission. This NASA mission has been launched in January 1998 from Cape Canaveral and has orbited the Moon on a polar orbit during 18 months, until July 1999. It made a full orbit in a little less than 2 hours, at a mean altitude of 100 km (60 miles). This allowed to cover the whole surface of the Moon, and to make measurements with 6 instruments, related to gamma rays, electrons, neutrons, gravity… and the magnetic field.

Results of this study

This study essentially consists of two parts: a theoretical study of the temperature evolution of the Moon over its early ages, including after impacts, and the interpretation of the magnetic field data. These data are 14 magnetic anomalies in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which the theoretical study helps to date. And the data show two orientations of the magnetic field in the magnetic in the past, giving an excursion of more than 100° over the ages.

Now, if we consider that in the presence of a core dynamo, the magnetic field should be nearly aligned with the spin pole, this means that the Moon has experienced a polar wander of more than 100° in its early life. More precisely, the two orientations are temporally separated by the creation of the Imbrium basin, 3.9 Gyr ago. In other words, the Moon has been tilted. This is not the only case in the Solar System, see e.g. Enceladus.

To know more

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

An asteroid pair

Hi there! Today I present you the study of an asteroid pair. Not a binary, a pair. A binary asteroid is a couple of asteroids which are gravitationally bound, while in pair, the asteroids are just neighbors, they do not live together… but have. The study is entitled Detailed analysis of the asteroid pair (6070) Rheinland and (54287) 2001 NQ8, by Vokrouhlický et al., and it has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

Asteroid pairs

I have presented asteroid families in a previous post. These are groups of asteroids which present common dynamical and physical properties. They can be in particular identified from the clustering of their proper elements, i.e. you express their orbital elements (semimajor axis, eccentricity, inclination, pericentre, …), you treat them properly so as to get rid off the gravitational disturbance of the planets, and you see that some of these bodies tend to group. This suggests that they constitute a collisional family, i.e. they were a unique body in the past, which has been destroyed by collisions.
An asteroid pair is something slightly different, since these are two bodies which present dynamical similarities in their osculating elements, i.e. before denoising them from the gravitational attraction of the planets. Of course, they would present similarities in their proper elements as well, but the fact that similarities can be detected in the osculating elements means that they are even closer than a family, i.e. the separation occurred later. Families younger than 1 Myr (1 million of years) are considered to be very young; the pair I present you today is much younger than that. How much? You have to read me before.
A pair suggests that only two bodies are involved. This suggests a non-collisional origin, more particularly an asteroid fission.

Asteroid fission

Imagine an asteroid with a very fast rotation. A rotation so fast that it would split the asteroid. We would then have two components, which would be gravitationally bound, and evolving… Depending on the energy involved, it could remain a stable binary asteroid, a secondary fission might occur, the two or three components may migrate away from each other… and in that case we would pair asteroid with very close elements of their heliocentric orbits.
It is thought that the YORP (Yarkovsky – O’Keefe – Radzievskii – Paddack) could trigger this rotational fission. This is a thermic effect which alter the rotation, and in some cases, in particular when the satellite has an irregular shape, it could accelerate it. Until fission.
Thermic effects are particularly efficient when the Sun is close, which means that NEA (Near Earth Asteroids) are more likely to be destroyed by this process than Main Belt asteroids. Here, we deal with Main Belt asteroids.

The pair 6070-54827 (Rheinland – 2001 NQ8)

The following table present properties of Rheinland and 2001 NQ8. The orbital elements are at Epoch 2458000.5, i.e. September 4th 2017. They come from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser.

(6070) Rheinland (54827) 2001 NQ8
Semimajor axis (AU) 2.3874015732216 2.387149297807496
Eccentricity 0.2114524962733347 0.211262507795103
Inclination 3.129675305535938° 3.128927421642917°
Node 83.94746016534368° 83.97704257098502°
Pericentre 292.7043398319871° 292.4915004062336°
Orbital period 1347.369277588708 d (3.69 y) 1347.155719572348 d (3.69 y)
Magnitude 13.8 15.5
Discovery 1991 2001

Beside their magnitudes, i.e. Rheinland is much brighter than 2001 NQ8, this is why it was discovered 10 years earlier, we can see that all the slow orbital elements (i.e. all of them, except the longitude) are very close, which strongly suggests they shared the same orbit. Not only their orbits have the same shape, but they also have the same orientation.

Shapes and rotations from lightcurves

A useful tool for determining the rotation and shape of an asteroid is the lightcurve. The object reflects the incident Solar light, and the way it reflects it will tell us something on its location, its shape, and its orientation. You can imagine that the surfaces of these bodies are not exclusively composed of smooth terrain, and irregularities (impact basins, mountains,…) will result in a different Solar flux, which also depends on the phase, i.e. the angle between the normale of the surface and the asteroid – Sun direction… i.e. depends whether you see the Sun at the zenith or close to the horizon. This is why recording the light from the asteroid at different dates tell us something. You can see below an example of lightcurve for 2001 NQ8.

Example of lightcurve for 2001 NQ8, observed by Vokrouhlický et al.

Recording such a lightcurve is not an easy task, since the photometric measurements should be denoised, otherwise you cannot compare them and interpret the lightcurve. You have to compensate for the variations of the luminosity of the sky during the observation (how far is the Moon?), of the thickness of the atmosphere (are we close to the horizon?), of the heterogeneity of the CCD sensors (you can compensate that in measuring the response of a uniform surface). And the weather should be good enough.

Once you have done that, you get a lightcurve alike the one above. We can see 3 maxima and 2 minima. Then the whole set of lightcurves is put into a computational machinery which will give you the parameters that best match the observations, i.e. periods of rotation, orientation of the spin pole at a given date, and shape… or at least a diameter. In this study, the authors already had the informations for Rheinland but confirmed them with new observations, and produced the diameter and rotation parameters for 2001 NQ8. And here are the results:

(6070) Rheinland (54827) 2001 NQ8
Diameter (km) 4.4 ± 0.6 2.2 ± 0.3
Spin period (h) 4.2737137 ± 0.0000005 5.877186 ± 0.000002
Spin pole (124°,-87°) (72°,-49°) or (242°,-46°)

We can see rapid rotation periods, as it is often the case for asteroids. The locations of the poles mean that their rotations
are retrograde, with respect to their orbital motions. Moreover, two solutions best match the pole of 2001 NQ8.

Dating the fission

The other aspect of this study is a numerical simulation of the orbital motion of these two objects, backward in time, to date their separation. Actually, the authors considered 5,000 clones of each of the two objects, to make their results statistically relevant.
They not only considered the gravitational interactions with other objects of the Solar System, but also the Yarkovsky effect, i.e. a thermal pull due to the Sun, which depends on the reflectivity of the asteroids, and favors their separation. For that, they propose new equations implementing this effect. They also simulated the variations of the spin pole orientation, since it affects the thermal acceleration.

And here is the result: the fission probably occurred 16,340 ± 40 years ago.


Why doing that? Because what we see is the outcome of an asteroid fission, which occurred recently. The authors honestly admit that this result could be refined in the future, depending on

  • Possible future measurements of the Yarkovsky acceleration of one or two of these bodies,
  • The consideration of the mutual interactions between Rheinland and 2001 NQ8,
  • Refinements of the presented measurements,
  • Discovery of a third member?

To date the fission, they dated a close approach between these two bodies. They also investigated the possibility that that
close approach, some 16,000 years from now, could have not been the right one, and that the fission could have been much older. For that, they ran long-term simulations, which suggest that older close approaches should have been less close: if the pair were older, Yarkovsky would have separated it more.

To know more

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

On the stability of Chariklo

Hi there! Do you remember Chariklo? You know, this asteroid with rings (see this post on their formation). Today, we will not speak on the formation of the rings, but of the asteroid itself. I present you the paper entitled The dynamical history of Chariklo and its rings, by J. Wood, J. Horner, T. Hinse and S. Marsden, which has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal. It deals with the dynamical stability of the asteroid Chariklo as a Centaur, i.e. when Chariklo became a Centaur, and for how long.


Chariklo is a large asteroid orbiting between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, i.e. it is a Centaur. It is the largest known of them, with a diameter of ~250 km. It orbits the Sun on an elliptic orbit, with an eccentricity of 0.18, inducing variations of its distance to the Sun between 13.08 (perihelion) and 18.06 au (aphelion), au being the astronomical unit, close to 150 millions km.
But the main reason why people are interested in Chariklo is the confirmed presence of rings around it, while the scientific community expected rings only around large planets. These rings were discovered during a stellar occultation, i.e. Chariklo occulting a distant star. From the multiple observations of this occultation in different locations of the Earth’s surface, 2 rings were detected, and announced in 2014. Since then, rings have been hinted around Chiron, which is the second largest one Centaur, but this detection is still doubtful.
Anyway, Chariklo contributes to the popularity of the Centaurs, and this study is focused on it.

Small bodies populations in the Solar System

The best known location of asteroids in the Solar System is the Main Belt, which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Actually, there are small bodies almost everywhere in the Solar System, some of them almost intersecting the orbit of the Earth. Among the other populations are:

  • the Trojan asteroids, which share the orbit of Jupiter,
  • the Centaurs, which orbit between Saturn and Uranus,
  • the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. They can be split into the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), which have pretty regular orbits, some of them being stabilized by a resonant interaction with Neptune, and the Scattered Disc Objects (SDOs), which have larger semimajor axes and high eccentricities
  • the Oort cloud, which was theoretically predicted as a cloud of objects orbiting near the cosmological boundary of our Solar System. It may be a reservoir of comets, these small bodies with an eccentricity close to 1, which can sometimes visit our Earth.

The Centaurs are interesting from a dynamical point of view, since their orbits are not that stable, i.e. it is estimated that they remain in the Centaur zone in about 10 Myr. Since this is very small compared to the age of our Solar System (some 4.5 Gyr), the fact that Centaurs are present mean that the remaining objects are not primordial, and that there is at least one mechanism feeding this Centaur zone. In other words, the Centaurs we observe were somewhere else before, and they will one day leave this zone, but some other guys will replace them.

There are tools, indicators, helpful for studying and quantifying this (in)stability.

Stability, Lyapunov time, and MEGNO

Usually, an orbiting object is considered as “stable” (actually, we should say that its orbit is stable) if it orbits around its parent body for ever. Reasons for instability could be close encounters with other orbiting objects, these close encounters being likely to be favored by a high eccentricity, which could itself result from gravitational interactions with perturbing objects.
To study the stability, it is common to study chaos instead. And to study chaos, it is common to actually study the dependency on initial conditions, i.e. the hyperbolicity. If you hold a broom vertically on your finger, it lies in a hyperbolic equilibrium, i.e. a small deviation will dramatically change the way it will fall… but trust me, it will fall anyway.
And a good indicator of the hyperbolicity is the Lyapunov time, which is a timescale beyond which the trajectory is so much sensitive on the initial conditions that you cannot accurately predict it anymore. It will not necessarily become unstable: in some cases, known as stable chaos, you will have your orbit confined in a given zone, you do not know where it is in this zone. The Centaur zone has some kind of stable chaos (over a given timescale), which partly explains why some bodies are present there anyway.
To estimate the Lyapunov time, you have to integrate the differential equations ruling the motion of the body, and the ones ruling its tangent vector, i.e. tangent to its trajectory, which will give you the sensitivity to the initial conditions. If you are hyperbolic, then the norm of this tangent vector will grow exponentially, and from its growth rate you will have the Lyapunov time. Easy, isn’t it? Not that much. Actually this exponential growth is an asymptotic behavior, i.e. when time goes to infinity… i.e. when it is large enough. And you have to integrate over a verrrrry loooooooong time…
Fortunately, the MEGNO (Mean Exponential Growth of Nearby Orbits) indicator was invented, which converges much faster, and from which you can determine the Lyapunov time. If you are hyperbolic, the Lyapunov time is contained in the growth rate of the MEGNO, and if not, the MEGNO tends to 2, except for pretty simple systems (like the rotation of synchronous bodies), where it tends to zero.

We have now indicators, which permit to quantify the instability of the orbits. As I said, these instabilities are usually physically due to close encounters with large bodies, especially Uranus for Centaurs. This requires to define the Hill and the Roche limits.

Hill and Roche limits

First the Roche limit: where an extended body orbits too close to a massive object, the difference of attraction it feels between its different parts is stronger than its cohesion forces, and it explodes. As a consequence, satellites of giant planets survive only as rings below the Roche limit. And the outer boundary of Saturn’s rings is inner and very close to the Roche limit.

Now the Hill limit: it is the limit beyond which you feel more the attraction of the body you meet than the parent star you both orbit. This may result in being trapped around the large object (a giant planet), or more probably a strong deviation of your orbit. You could then become hyperbolic, and be ejected from the Solar System.

This paper

This study consists in backward numerical integrations of clones of Chariklo, i.e. you start with many fictitious particles (the authors had 35,937 of them) which do not interact with each others, but interact with the giant planets, and which are currently very close to the real Chariklo. Numerical integration over such a long timespan requires accurate numerical integrators, the authors used a symplectic one, i.e. which presents mathematical properties limiting the risk of divergence over long times. Why 1 Gyr? The mean timescale of survival (called here half-life, i.e. during which you lose half of your population) is estimated to be 10 Myr, so 1 Gyr is 100 half-lives. They simulated the orbits and also drew MEGNO maps, i.e. estimated the Lyapunov time with respect to the initial orbital elements of the particle. Not surprisingly, the lower the eccentricity, the more stable the orbit.

And the result is: Chariklo is in a zone of pretty stable chaos. Moreover, it is probably a Centaur since less than 20 Myr, and was a Trans-Neptunian Object before. This means that it was exterior to Neptune, while it is now interior. In a few simulations, Chariklo finds its origin in the inner Solar System, i.e. the Main Belt, which could have favored a cometary activity (when you are closer to the Sun, you are warmer, and your ice may sublimate), which could explain the origin of the rings. But the authors do not seem to privilege this scenario, as it supported by only few simulations.

What about the rings?

The authors wondered if the rings would have survived a planetary encounter, which could be a way to date them in case of no. But actually it is a yes: they found that the distance of close encounter was large enough with respect to the Hill and Roche limits to not affect the rings. So, this does not preclude an ancient origin for the rings… But a specific study of the dynamics of the rings would be required to address this issue, i.e. how stable are they around Chariklo?

To know more

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

Enceladus lost its balance

Hi there! Today I will present you True polar wander of Enceladus from topographic data, by Tajeddine et al., which has recently been published in Icarus. The idea is this: Enceladus is a satellite of Saturn which has a pretty stable rotation axis. In the past, its rotation axis was already stable, but with a dramatically different orientation, i.e. 55° shifted from the present one! The authors proposed this scenario after having observed the distribution of impact basins at its surface.

Enceladus’s facts

Enceladus is one of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn, it is actually the second innermost of them. It has a mean radius of some 250 km, and orbits around Saturn in 1.37 day, at a distance of ~238,000 km. It is particularly interesting since it presents evidence of past and present geophysical activity. In particular, geysers have been observed by the Cassini spacecraft at its South Pole, and its southern hemisphere presents four pretty linear features known as tiger stripes, which are fractures.

Enceladus seen by Cassini (Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute).
Enceladus seen by Cassini (Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute).

Moreover, analyses of the gravity field of Enceladus, which is a signature of its interior, strongly suggest a global, subsurfacic ocean, and a North-South asymmetry. This asymmetry is consistent with a diapir of water at its South Pole, which would be the origin of the geysers. The presence of the global ocean has been confirmed by measurements of the amplitude of the longitudinal librations of its surface, which are consistent with a a crust, that a global ocean would have partially decoupled from the interior.

The rotation of a planetary satellite

Planetary satellites have a particularly interesting rotational dynamics. Alike our Moon, they show on average always the same face to a fictitious observer, which would observe the satellite from the surface of the parent planet (our Earth for the Moon, Saturn for Enceladus). This means that they have a synchronous rotation, i.e. a rotation which is synchronous with their orbit, but also that the orientation of their spin axis is pretty stable.
And this is the key point here: the spin axis is pretty orthogonal to the orbit (this orientation is called Cassini State 1), and it is very close to the polar axis, which is the axis of largest moment of inertia. This means that we have a condition on the orientation of the spin axis with respect to the orbit, AND with respect to the surface. The mass distribution in the satellite is not exactly spherical, actually masses tend to accumulate in the equatorial plane, more particularly in the satellite-planet direction, because of the combined actions of the rotation of the satellites and the tides raised by the parent planet. This implies a shorter polar axis. And the study I present today proposes that the polar axis has been tilted of 55° in the past. This tilt is called polar wander. This result is suggested by the distribution of the craters at the surface of Enceladus.

Relaxing a crater

The Solar System bodies are always impacted, this was especially true during the early ages of the Solar System. And the inner satellites of Saturn were more impacted than the outer ones, because the mass of Saturn tends to attract the impactors, focusing their trajectories.
As a consequence, Enceladus got heavily impacted, probably pretty homogeneously, i.e. craters were everywhere. And then, over the ages, the crust slowly went back to its original shape, relaxing the craters. The craters became then basins, and eventually some of them disappeared. Some of them, but not all of them.
The process of relaxation is all the more efficient when the material is hot. For material which properties strongly depend on the temperature, a stagnant lid can form below the surface, which would partly preserve it from the heating by convection, and could preserve the craters. This phenomenon appears preferably at equatorial latitudes.
This motivates the quest for basins. A way for that is to measure the topography of the surface.

Modeling the topography

The surface of planetary body can be written as a sum of trigonometric series, known as spherical harmonics, in which the radius would depend on 2 parameters, i.e. the latitude and the longitude. This way, you have the radius at any point of the surface. Classically, two terms are kept, which allow to represent the surface as a triaxial ellipsoid. This is the expected shape from the rotational and tidal deformations. If you want to look at mass anomalies, then you have to go further in the expansion of the formula. But to do that, you need data, i.e. measurements of the radius at given coordinates. And for that, the planetologists dispose of the Cassini spacecraft, which made several flybys of Enceladus, since 2005.
Two kinds of data have been used in this study: limb profiles, and control points.
Limb profiles are observations of the bright edge of an illuminated object, they result in very accurate measurements of limited areas. Control points are features on the surface, detected from images. They can be anywhere of the surface, and permit a global coverage. In this study, the authors used 41,780 points derived from 54 limb profiles, and 6,245 control points.
Measuring the shape is only one example of use of such data. They can also be used to measure the rotation of the body, in comparing several orientations of given features at different dates.
These data permitted the authors to model the topography up to the order 16.

The result

The authors identified a set of pretty aligned basins, which would happen for equatorial basins protected from relaxation by stagnant lid convection. But the problem is this: the orientation of this alignment would need a tilt of 55° of Enceladus to be equatorial! This is why the authors suggest that Enceladus has been tilted in the past.

The observations do not tell us anything on the cause of this tilt. Some blogs emphasize that it could be due to an impact. Why not? But less us be cautious.
Anyway, the orientation of the rotation axis is consistent with the current mass distribution, i.e. the polar axis has the largest moment of inertia. Actually, mid-sized planetary satellites like Enceladus are close to sphericity, in the sense that there is no huge difference between the moments of inertia of its principal axes. So, a redistribution of mass after a violent tilt seems to be possible.

To know more

And now the authors:

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