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.

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