Hi there! Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are known to share their orbits with small bodies, called Trojans. This is made possible by a law of celestial mechanics, which specifies that the points located 60° ahead and behind a planet on its orbit are stable. Moreover, there are many binary objects in the Solar System, but no binary asteroid have been discovered as Trojans of Neptune. This motivates the following study, Dynamical evolution of a fictitious population of binary Neptune Trojans, by Adrián Brunini, which has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In this study, the author wonders under which conditions a binary Trojan of Neptune could survive, which almost means could be observed now.
The coorbital resonance
The coorbital resonance is a 1:1 mean-motion resonance. This means that the two involved bodies have on average the same orbital frequency around their parent one. In the specific case of the Trojan of a planet, these two objects orbit the Sun with the same period, and the mass ratio between them makes that the small body is strongly affected by the planet, however the planet is not perturbed by the asteroid. But we can have this synchronous resonance even if the mass ratio is not huge. For instance, we have two coorbital satellites of Saturn, Janus and Epimetheus, which have a mass ratio of only 3.6. Both orbit Saturn in ~16 hours, but in experiencing strong mutual perturbations. They are stable anyway.
In the specific problem of the restricted (the mass of the asteroid is negligible), planar (let us assume that the planet and the asteroid orbit in the same plane), circular (here, we neglect the eccentricity of the two orbits) 3-body (the Sun, the planet and the asteroid) problem, it can be shown that if the planet and the asteroid orbit at the same rate, then there are 5 equilibriums, for which the gravitational actions of the planet and the Sun cancel out. 3 of them, named L1, L2 and L3, are unstable, and lie on the Sun-planet axis. The 2 remaining ones, i.e. L4 and L5, lag 60° ahead and behind the planet, and are stable. As a consequence, the orbits with small oscillations around L4 and L5 are usually stable, even if the real configuration has some limited eccentricity and mutual inclination. Other stable trajectories exist theoretically, e.g. horseshoe orbits around the point L4, L3 and L5. The denomination L is a reference to the Italian-born French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813), who studied this problem.
At this time, 6,701 Trojans are known for Jupiter (4269 at L4 and 2432 at L5), 1 for Uranus, 1 for the Earth, 9 for Mars, and 17 for Neptune, 13 of them orbiting close to L4.
The Trojans of Neptune
You can find an updated list of them here, and let me gather their main orbital characteristics:
As you can see, these are faint bodies, which have been discovered between 2001 and 2014. I have given here their provisional designations, which have the advantage to contain the date of the discovery. Actually, 2004 UP10 is also known as (385571) Otrera, a mythological Queen of the Amazons, and 2005 TO74 has received the number (385695).
Their dynamics is plotted below:
Surprisingly, the 4 Trojans around L5 are outliers: they are the most two eccentric, the remaining two being among the three more inclined Trojans. Even if the number of known bodies may not be statistically relevant, this suggests an asymmetry between the two equilibriums L4 and L5. The literature has not made this point clear yet. In 2007, a study suggested an asymmetry of the location of the stable regions (here), but the same authors said one year later that this was indeed an artifact introduced by the initial conditions (here). In 2012, another study detected that the L4 zone is more stable than the L5 one. Still an open question… In the study I present today, the author simulated only orbits in the L4 region.
A binary object is actually two objects, which are gravitationally bound. When their masses ratio is of the order of 1, we should not picture it as a major body and a satellite, but as two bodies orbiting a common barycenter. At this time, 306 binary asteroids have been detected in the Solar System. Moreover, we also know 14 triple systems, and 1 sextuple one, which is the binary Pluto-Charon and its 4 minor satellites.
The formation of a binary can result from the disruption of an asteroid, for instance after an impact, or after fission triggered by a spin acceleration (relevant for Near-Earth Asteroids, which are accelerated by the YORP effect), or from the close encounter of two objects. The outcome is two objects, which orbit together in a few hours, and this system evolves… and then several things might happen. Basically, it either evolves to a synchronous spin-spin-orbit resonance, i.e. the two bodies having a synchronous rotation, which is also synchronous with their mutual orbit (examples: Pluto-Charon, the double asteroid (90) Antiope), or the two components finally split… There are also systems in which only one of the components rotates synchronously. Another possible end-state is a contact binary, i.e. the two components eventually touch together.
At this time, 4 binary asteroids are known among the Trojans asteroids of Jupiter. None is known for Neptune.
The author considered fictitious binary asteroids close to the L4 of Neptune, and propagated the motion of the two components, in considering the planetary perturbations of the planets, over 4.5 Byr, i.e. the age of the Solar System. A difficulty for such long-term numerical studies is the handling of numerical uncertainties. Your numerical scheme includes a time-step, which is the time interval between the simulated positions of the system, i.e. the locations and velocities of the two components of the binary. If your time-step is too large, you will have a mathematical uncertainty in your evaluation. However, if you shorten it, you will have too many iterations, which means a too long calculation time, and the accumulations of round-off errors due to the machine epsilon, i.e. rounding in floating point arithmetic.
A good time step should be a fraction of the shortest period perturbing the system. Neptune orbits the Sun in 165 years, which permits a time step of some years, BUT the period of a binary is typically a few hours… which is too short for simulations over the age of the Solar System. This problem is by-passed in averaging the dynamics of the binary. This means that only long-term effects are kept. In this case, the author focused on the Kozai-Lidov effect, which is a secular (i.e. very long-term) raise of the inclination and the eccentricity. Averaging a problem of gravitational dynamics is always a challenge, because you have to make sure you do not forget a significant contribution.
The author also included the tidal interaction between the two components, i.e. the mutual interaction triggering stress and strain, and which result in dissipation of energy, secular variation of the mutual orbits, and damping of the rotation.
He considered three sets of binaries: two with components of about the same size, these two samples differing by the intensity of tides, and in the third one the binary are systems with a high mass ratio, i.e. consisting of a central body and a satellite.
Survival of the binaries
The authors find that for systems with strong tides, about two thirds of the binaries should survive. The tides have unsurprisingly a critical role, since they tend to make the binary evolve to a stable end-state, i.e. doubly synchronous with an almost circular mutual orbit. However, few systems with main body + satellite survive.
Challenging this model
At this time, no binary has been found among the Trojans of Neptune, but this does not mean that there is none. The next years shall tell us more about these bodies, and once they will be statistically significant, we would be able to compare the observations with the theory. An absence of binaries could mean that they were initially almost absent, i.e. lack of binaries in that region (then we should explain why there are binaries in the Trans-Neptunian population), or that the relevant tides are weak. We could also expect further theoretical studies, i.e. with a more complete tidal dynamics, and frequency-dependent tides. Here, the author assumed a constant tidal function Q, while it actually depends on the rotation rate of the two bodies, which themselves decrease all along the evolution.
So, this is a model assisting our comprehension of the dynamics of binary objects in that region. As such, it should be seen as a step forward. Many other steps are to be expected in the future, observationally and theoretically (by the way, could a Trojan have rings?).