The Brazil Nut Effect on asteroids

Hi there! You know these large nuts called Brazil nuts? Don’t worry, I will not make you think that they grow on asteroids. No they don’t. But when you put nuts in a pot, or in a glass, have you ever noticed that the biggest nuts remain at the top? That seems obvious, since we are used to that. But let us think about it… these are the heaviest nuts, and they don’t sink! WTF!!! And you have the same kind of effect on small bodies, asteroids, planetesimals, comets… I present you today a Japanese study about that, entitled Categorization of Brazil nut effect and its reverse under less-convective conditions for microgravity geology by Toshihiro Chujo, Osamu Mori, Jun’ichiro Kawaguchi, and Hajime Yano. This study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Brazil Nut and Reverse Brazil Nut effects

The idea is easy to figure out. If you have a pot full of different nuts, then the smallest ones will be naturally closer to the bottom, since they are small enough to fill the voids between the largest ones. For the same reason, if you fill a bucket first with stones and then with sand, the sand will naturally reach the bottom, flowing around the stones. Flowing is important here, since the sand pretty much behaves as a fluid. And of course, if you put the sand in the bucket first, and then the stones, the stones will naturally be closer to the top. Well, this is the Brazil Nut Effect.

OK, now let us make the story go one step further… You have an empty bucket, and you put sand inside… a third of it, or a half… this results as a flat structure. You put stones, which then cover the sand, lying on its surface… and you shake. You shake the bucket, many times… what happen? the sand is moving, and makes some room for the stones, or just some of them, which migrate deeper… if you shake enough, then some of them can even reach the bottom. This is the Reverse Brazil Nut Effect.

And the funny thing is that you can find this effect on planetary bodies! Wait, we may have a problem… when the body is large enough, then the material tends to melt, the heaviest one migrating to the core. So, the body has to be small enough for its interior being ruled by the Brazil Nut Effect, or its reversed version. If the body is small enough, then we are in conditions of microgravity. The authors give the examples of the Near-Earth Asteroid (433)Eros, its largest diameter being 34.4 km, the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is ten times smaller in length, and the asteroid (25143)Itokawa, its largest length being 535 meters. All of these bodies are in conditions of microgravity, and were visited by spacecraft, i.e. NEAR Shoemaker for Eros in 2001, Rosetta for Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, and Hayabusa for Itokawa in 2003. And all of these space missions have revealed pebbles and boulders at the surface, which motivated the study of planetary terrains in conditions of microgravity.

Eros seen by NEAR Shoemaker. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL
Eros seen by NEAR Shoemaker. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

I mentioned the necessity to shake the bucket to give a chance to Reverse Brazil Nut Effect. How to shake these small bodies? With impact, of course. You have impactors everywhere in the Solar System, and small bodies do not need impactors to be large to be shaken enough. Moreover, this shaking could come from cometary activity, in case of a comet, which is true for Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The authors studied this process both with numerical simulations, and lab experiments.

Numerical simulations

The numerical simulations were conducted with a DEM code, for Discrete Element Modeling. It consisted to simulate the motion of particle which touch each others, or touch the wall of the container. These particles are spheres, and you have interactions when contact. These interactions are modeled with a mixture of spring (elastic interaction, i.e. without dissipation of energy) and dashpot (or damper, which induces a loss of energy at each contact). These two effects are mixed together in using the so-called Voigt rheology.

In every simulation, the authors had 10,224 small particles (the sand), and a large one, named intruder, which is the stone trying to make its way through the sand.

The simulations differed by

  • the density of the intruder (light as acryl, moderately dense as glass, or heavy as high-carbon chromium steel),
  • the frequency of the shaking, modeled as a sinusoidal oscillation over 50 cycles,
  • the restitution coefficient between the sand of the intruder. If it is null, then you dissipate all the energy when contact between the intruder and the sand, and when it is equal to unity then the interaction is purely elastic, i.e. you have no energy loss.

Allowing those parameters to vary will result in different outcomes of the simulations. This way, the influence of each of those parameters is being studied.

A drawback of some simulations is the computation time, since you need to simulate the behavior of each of the particles simultaneously. This is why the authors also explored another way: lab experiments.

Lab experiments

You just put sand in a container, you put an intruder, you shake, and you observe what is going on. Well, said that way, it seems to be easy. It is actually more complicated than that if you want to make proper job.

The recipient was an acryl cylinder, put on a vibration test machine. This machine was controlled by a device, which guaranteed the accuracy of the sinusoidal shaking, i.e. its amplitude, its frequency, and the total duration of the experiment. The intruder was initially put in the middle of the sand, i.e. half way between the bottom of the recipient and the surface of the sand. If it reached the bottom before 30,000 oscillation cycles, then the conclusion was RBNE, and if it raised from the surface the conclusion was BNE. Otherwise, these two effects were considered to be somehow roughly balanced.

But wait: the goal is to model the surface of small bodies, i.e. in conditions of microgravity. The authors did the experiment on Earth, so…? There are ways to reproduce microgravity conditions, like in a parabolic flight, or on board the International Space Station, but this was not the case here. The authors worked in a lab, submitted to our terrestrial gravity. The difficulty is to draw conclusions for the asteroids from Earth-based lab experiments.

At this point, the theory assists the experimentation. If you write down the equations ensuing from the physics (I don’t do it… feel free to do so if you want), these equations ruling the DEM code for instance, you will be able to manipulate them (yes you will) so as to make them depend on dimensionless parameters. For instance: your size is in meters (or in feet). It has the physical dimension of a length. But if you divide your size with the one of your neighbor, you should get something close to unity, but this will be a dimensionless quantity, as the ratio between your size and your neighbor’s. The size of your neighbor is now your reference (let him know, I am sure he would be delighted), and if your size if larger than 1, it means that you are taller than your neighbor (are you?). In the case of our Brazil Nut experiment, the equations give you a gravity, which you can divide by the local one, i.e. either the gravity of your lab, or the microgravity of an asteroid. The result of your simulation will be expressed with respect to this ratio, which you can then re-express with respect to the microgravity of your asteroid. So, all this is a matter of scale. These scaling laws are ubiquitous in lab experiments, and they permit to work in many other contexts.

Triggering the Reverse Brazil Nut effect

And here are the results:

  • The outcomes of the experiments match the ones of the numerical simulations.
  • The authors saw practically no granular convection, i.e. the sand initially at the bottom does not migrate to the top. This is here an analogy with fluid mechanics, in which water at the bottom can raise to the top, especially when it warms (warm water is less dense than cold one).
  • Densest intruders are the likeliest to migrate to the bottom.
  • The authors identified 3 distinct behaviors for the particles, depending on a dimensionless acceleration Γ.

These behaviors are:

  1. Slow Brazil Nut Effect,
  2. Fast BNE, for which the intruder requires less oscillation cycles to raise,
  3. Fluid motion, which may induce RBNE. This is favored by rapid oscillations of the shaking.

The study and its 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, Facebook, and (NEW) Instagram.

The lunar history

(Alternative title: The search for the origin of the Late Heavy Bombardment)

Hi there! It is a pleasure for me to present you today a multi-disciplinary study, which mixes celestial mechanics with geochemistry. If you want to know the past of a planetary body, you must go backward: you start from the body as you observe it nowadays, and from this you infer the processes which made it evolve from its formation to its present state. In The timeline of the Lunar bombardment – revisited, by A. Morbidelli, D. Nesvorný, V. Laurenz, S. Marchi, D.C. Rubie, L. Elkins-Tanton, M. Wieczorek and S. Jacobson, the authors exploit our observations of the craters and the chemistry of the Moon, and simulations of the motion of asteroids in the early Solar System, to give new constraints on the bombardment of the Moon between 3.9 and 3.7 Gyr (billions of years) ago, which is famous as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). We will see that the results have implications for Mars. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The Lunar basins

Let us start from what we observe: the Lunar surface. This is a heavily cratered surface. Actually, the absence of atmosphere preserves it from erosion, and the small size of the Moon limits its heating, as a consequence the craters neither erode nor relax. Hence, the surface of the Moon is a signature of the activity in the early Solar System.

Let us focus on the largest structures, i.e. the maria and the basins. The maria are lava plains, which result from a volcanic activity of the early Moon. However, the basins are the largest impact craters. You can find below the largest ones, of course many smaller craters exist.

Basin Diameter (km)
South Pole-Aitken 2,600
Imbrium 1,100
Orientale 930
Serenitatis 920
Australe 880
Nectaris 860
Smythii 740
Crisium 740
Tranquillitatis 700
Tsiolkovsky-Stark 700
Fecunditatis 690
Mutus-Vlacq 690
Nubium 690

The early Moon was hot, because of the impact which created it. As a hot body, it stratified into a fluid core, a mantle and a crust, while cooling. The visible impact craters are younger than the crust, i.e. they are younger than 3.9 Gyr, and were created at least 600 Myr after the formation of the Moon… pretty late, hence due to the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Orientale Basin. © NASA
Orientale Basin. © NASA

Origin of the LHB: cataclysm or accretion tail?

Late Heavy Bombardment means that the inner Solar System have been intensively bombarded late after its genesis. But how did that happen? Two scenarios can be found in the literature:

  1. Cataclysm: the very young Solar System was very active, i.e. composed of many small bodies which collided, partly accreting… and became pretty quiet during some hundreds of Myr… before suddenly, a new phase of bombardment occurred.
  2. Accretion tail: the Solar System had a slowly decreasing activity, and the craters on the Moon are just the signature of the last 200 Myrs. The previous impacts were not recorded, since the surface was still molten.

The second scenario could be preferred, as the simplest one. The first one needs a cause which would trigger this second phase of bombardment. Anyway, many numerical simulations of the early Solar System got such an activity, as a dynamical phenomenon destabilizing the orbits of a group of small bodies, which themselves entered the inner Solar System and collided with the planets, accreting on them. The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn have a dominant dynamical influence on the small bodies of the Solar System, and could have triggered such an instability. One of the theories existing in the literature is the E-Belt, for extended belt. It would have been an internal extension of the Main Belt of asteroids, which would have been destabilized by a secular resonance with Saturn, and has finished as the impactors of the LHB. Why not, this is a theory.

When you model phenomena having occurred several billions years ago, you have so many uncertainties that you cannot be certain that your solution is the right one. This is why the literature proposes several scenarios. Further studies test them, and sometimes (this is the case here) give additional constraints, which refine them.

Thanks to the Apollo mission, samples of the Moon have been analyzed on Earth, and geochemistry can tell us many things on the history of a body. For the Moon, focus has been put on siderophile elements.

What siderophile elements tell us

A siderophile element is a chemical element which has affinity with iron. Among these elements are iron, iridium, palladium, platinum, rubidium… When a planetary body is hot, it tends to differentiate, and its heaviest elements, i.e. iron, migrate to the core. This results in a depletion of highly siderophile elements (HSE). Since a very small abundance of these elements has been observed, then we have no problem, thank you…

NO NO NO there is actually a problem, since these siderophile elements should be present in the impactors, which are supposed to have accreted on the Moon AFTER its stratification… yes we have a problem.

But some of the authors have shown recently that on Earth, another phenomenon could remove the HSEs from the crust, well after the formation of the core: the exsolution and segregation of iron sulfide. In other words, the bombardment could have brought more HSEs than currently recorded. And this motivates to revisite the history of the Lunar bombardment.

Simulating the bombardment

So, the observations are: the craters, and the HSEs. The craters are not only the basins, but also the smaller ones, with diameters larger than 1 km. Even smaller craters could be used, but the data are considered to be reliable, i.e. exhaustive, for craters larger than 1 km. From that size to the large basins, we can fit a function of distribution, i.e. number of craters vs. diameter. Since there is an obvious correlation between the size of a crater and the one of the impactor, a population of craters corresponds to a population of impactors.

The authors dispose of statistics of collisions, which could be seen as mass accretion, between the Moon and small bodies during the early ages of the Solar System. These statistics result from numerical simulations conducted by some of them, and they can be fine-tuned to fit the crater distribution, their estimated ages, and the abundance of highly siderophile elements. Fine-tuning the statistics consist in artificially moving the parameters of the simulation, for instance the initial number of small bodies, or the date of the instability provoking the cataclysm, in the cataclysm scenario.

Cataclysm possible, accretion tail preferred

And here is the result: if the HSEs are only due to the mass accretion after the cooling of the Lunar crust, then the observations can only be explained by the cataclysm, i.e. the LHB would be due to a late instability. This instability would have resulted in a mass accretion from comets, and this raises another problem: this accretion seems to lack of primitive, carbonaceous material, while the comets contain some.

However, if the HSEs have been removed after the cooling of the crust, then the accretion tail scenario is possible.

We should accept that for this kind of study, the solution is not unique. A way to tend to the unicity of the solution is to discuss further implications, in examining other clues. And the authors mention the tungsten.

Tungsten is another marker

Tungsten is rather a lithophile than a siderophile element, at least in the presence of iron sulfide. In other words, even if it does not dislike iron, it prefers lithium (I like this way of discussing chemistry). Something puzzling is a significant difference in the ratios of two isotopes of tungsten (182W and 184W) between the Moon and the Earth. This difference could be primordial, as brought by the projectile which is supposed to have splitted the proto-Earth into the Earth and the Moon (nickname of the projectile: Theia), or it could be due to the post-formation mass accumulation. In that case, that would be another constraint on the LHB.

Implications for Mars

The LHB has affected the whole inner Solar System. So, if a scenario is valid for the Moon, it must be valid for Mars.
This is why the authors did the job for Mars as well. A notable difference is that Mars would be less impacted by comets than the Moon, and this would affect the composition of the accreted material. More precisely, a cataclysmic LHB would be a mixture of asteroids and comets, while an accretion tail one would essentially consist of leftover planetesimals. It appears that this last scenario, i.e. the accretion tail one, can match the distribution of craters and the abundance of HSEs. However, the cataclysmic scenario would not bring enough HSEs on Mars.


This study tells us that the accretion tail scenario is possible. The authors show that it would imply that

  1. The quantity of remaining HSEs on the Moon is correlated with the crystallization of the Lunar magma ocean, which itself regulates the age of the earliest Lunar crust.
  2. For Mars, the Noachian era would have started 200 Myr earlier than currently thought, i.e. 4.3 Gyr instead of 4.1 Gyr. That period is characterized by high rates of meteorite and asteroid impacts and the possible presence of abundant surface water. Moreover, the Borealis formation, i.e. the northern hemisphere of Mars, which seems to be a very large impact basin, should have been formed 4.37 Gyr ago.

Further studies, explorations, space missions, lab experiments,… should give us new data, which would challenge these implications and refine these scenarios. So, the wording prediction can seem weird for past phenomena, but the prediction is for new clues.

The study and its 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.

A constantly renewed ring of Saturn

Hi there! The outstanding Cassini mission ended last September with its Grand Finale, and it gave us invaluable data, which will still be studied for many years. Today I present you a study which has recently been published in The Astrophysical Journal: Particles co-orbital to Janus and Epimetheus: A firefly planetary ring, by a Brazilian team composed of Othon C. Winter, Alexandre P.S. Souza, Rafael Sfair, Silvia M. Giuliatti Winter, Daniela C. Mourão, and Dietmar W. Foryta. This study tells us how the authors characterized a dusty ring in the system of Saturn, studied its stability, and investigated its origin.

The rings of Saturn

As you may know, Saturn is the ringed planet, its rings being visible from Earth-based amateur telescopes. Actually, the 4 major planets of our Solar System have rings, and some dwarf planets as well, i.e. Chariklo, Haumea, and possibly Chiron. But Saturn is the only one with so dense rings. I summarize below the main relevant structures and distances, from the center of Saturn:

Distance Structure
60,268 km The atmospheric pressure of Saturn reaches 1 bar.
This is considered as the equatorial radius of Saturn.
66,900 – 74,510 km D Ring
74,658 – 92,000 km C Ring
92,000 – 117,580 km B Ring
117,580 – 122,170 km Cassini Division
122,170 – 136,775 km A Ring
133,589 km Encke Gap
140,180 km F Ring
151,500 km Orbits of Janus and Epimetheus
189,000 km Orbit of Mimas
1,222,000 km Orbit of Titan

The A and B Rings are the densest ones. They are separated by the Cassini Division, which appears as a lack of material. It actually contains some, arranged as ringlets, but they are very faint. The Encke Gap is a depletion of material as well, in which the small satellite Pan confines the boundaries. Here we are interested in a dusty ring enshrouding the orbits of Janus and Epimetheus, i.e. outside the dense rings. The discovery of this ring had been announced in 2006, this study reveals its characteristics.

The rings of Saturn seen by Cassini. From right to left: the A Ring with the Encke Gap, the Cassini Division, the B Ring, the C Ring, and the D Ring. © NASA
The rings of Saturn seen by Cassini. From right to left: the A Ring with the Encke Gap, the Cassini Division, the B Ring, the C Ring, and the D Ring. © NASA

Janus and Epimetheus

The two coorbital satellites Janus and Epimetheus are a unique case in the Solar System, since these are two bodies with roughly the same size (diameters: ~180 and ~120 km, respectively), which share the same orbit around Saturn. More precisely, they both orbit Saturn in 16 hours, i.e. at the same mean orbital frequency. This is a case of 1:1 mean-motion resonance, involving peculiar mutual gravitational interactions, which prevent them from colliding. They swap their orbits every four years, i.e. the innermost of the two satellites becoming the outermost. The amplitudes of these swaps (26 km for Janus and 95 for Epimetheus) have permitted to know accurately the mass ratio between them, which is 3.56, Janus being the heaviest one.

Interestingly, Epimetheus is the first among the satellites of Saturn for which longitudinal librations have been detected. As many natural satellites, Janus and Epimetheus have a synchronous rotation, showing the same face to a fictitious observer at the surface of Saturn. For Epimetheus, large librations have been detected around this direction, which are a consequence of its elongated shape, and could reveal some mass inhomogeneities, maybe due to variations of porosity, and/or to its pretty irregular shape.

Janus and Epimetheus seen by Cassini (mosaic of 2 images). © NASA
Janus and Epimetheus seen by Cassini (mosaic of 2 images). © NASA

Images of a new ring

So, Cassini images have revealed a dusty ring in that zone. To characterize it, the authors have first extracted images likely to contain it. Such images are made publicly available on NASA’s Planetary Data System. Since that ring had been announced to have been observed on Sept 15th 2006 (see the original press release), the authors restricted to 2 days before and after that date. The data they used were acquired by the ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem) instrument of Cassini, more precisely the NAC and WAC (Narrow- and Wide-Angle-Camera). They finally found 17 images showing the ring.

The images are given as raw data. The authors needed to calibrate their luminosity with a tool (a software) provided by the Cassini team, and sometimes to smooth them, to remove cosmic rays. Moreover, they needed to consider the position of the spacecraft, to be able to precisely locate the structures they would see.

One of the Cassini images used by the authors. I have added red stars at the location of the ring. © NASA / Ciclops
One of the Cassini images used by the authors. I have added red stars at the location of the ring. © NASA / Ciclops

It appears that the ring presents no longitudinal brightness variation. In other words, not only this is a whole ring and not just an arc, but no density variation is obvious. However, it presents radial brightness variations, over a width of 7,500 km, which is wider than the 5,000 km announced in the 2006 press release.

The next step is to understand the dynamics of this ring, i.e. its stability, its origin, the properties of the particles constituting it… Let us start with the stability.

The ring is removed in a few decades

The authors ran N-body simulations, i.e. numerical integrations of the equations ruling the motion of a ring particle, which would be gravitationally perturbed by the surrounding bodies, i.e. Saturn, and the Janus, Epimetheus, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Titan. Moreover, for a reason that I will tell you at the end of this article, the authors knew that the particles were smaller than 13 μm. The motions of such small particles are affected by the radiation pressure of the Sun, in other words the Solar light pushes the particles outward.

The authors simulated 14 times the motion of 18,000 particles equally distributed in the rings. Why 14 times? To consider different particle sizes, i.e. one set with 100 μm-sized particles, and the other sets with sizes varying from 1μm to 13μm.
And it appears that these particles collide with something in a few decades, mostly Janus or Epimetheus. This leaves two possibilities: either we were very lucky to be able to take images of the ring while it existed, or a process constantly feeds the ring. The latter option is the most probable one. Let us now discuss this feeding process.

Renewing the ring

The likeliest sources of material for the rings are ejecta from Janus and Epimetheus. The question is: how were these ejecta produced? By impacts, probably. This study show that Janus and Epimetheus are impacted by the particles constituting the rings, but the impact velocities would not permit to produce ejecta. This is why the authors propose a model, in which interplanetary particles collide with the satellites, generating ejecta.

A firefly behavior

And let us finish with something funny: the ring seems to behave like a firefly, i.e. sometimes bright, and sometimes dark, which means undetectable while present.
To understand what happens, figure out how the light would cross a cloud of particles. If the cloud is dense enough, then it would reflect the light, and not be crossed. But for dust, the light would be refracted, i.e. change its direction. This depends on the incidence angle of the Solar light, i.e. on the geometrical configuration of the Sun-Saturn-ring system. The Solar incidence angle is also called phase. And this phase changes with the orbit of Saturn, which results in huge brightness variations of the ring. Sometimes it can be detected, but most of the time it cannot. This can be explained and numerically estimated by the Mie theory, which gives the diffusion of light by small particles. This theory also explains the creation of rainbows, the Solar light being diffracted by droplets of water.

The study and its 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.

The origin of giant impactors

Hi there! You may know that our Solar System has had a catastrophic youth, destructive impacts playing an inescapable role in sculpting its structure. The paper I present you today, Constraints on the pre-impact orbits of Solar System giant impactors, by Alan P. Jackson, Travis S.J. Gabriel & Erik I. Asphaug, proposes an efficient way to determine the orbit of a giant impactor before the impact. This tells us where this impactor could have come from. The study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Giant impacts in the Solar System

In its early history, the Solar System was composed of many small bodies, i.e. many much than now, most of them having been cleared since then. They have been cleared because the gravitational perturbation of the planets made their orbits unstable. They may also have been destroyed by collisions. Before the clearing was completed, the presence of so many bodies favored intense bombardments. You know for instance the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), which probably happened 4 Byr ago, during 200 Myr.
The violence and the outcome of an impact depend on the relative sizes of the target and the impactor, and their relative velocities. Here, the relative velocity should be seen as a vector, i.e. not only the velocity itself is important (the norm of the vector), but its orientation as well, since it directly affects the incidence angle. The craters on the surface of telluric planets, asteroids, and planetary satellites tell us about the history of the bodies, and are the signature of such bombardment. They have been excavated by impactors of moderate size. But now, imagine that the impactor has the size of a planetary body. This is what the authors address as giant impactors.
Giant impactors could have been responsible for

  • the formation of the Moon,
  • the removal of light elements on Mercury,
  • the formation of the two satellites of Mars, Phobos and Deimos,
  • the tilt of Uranus,
  • the disruption of dwarf planets, creating asteroids families,
  • the rings of Saturn,

and many more.

2 kinds of massive impacts

When two bodies of pretty similar size collide, they could

  • either be destroyed, or just one of them be destroyed,
  • survive.

The last case is known as hit-and-run. It happens when the impact is tangential, like between two billiard balls. But it is a little more complicated, of course. This last decade has seen the publication of many Smooth Particle Hydrodynamics (SPH) simulations, in which the impactor and the target are modeled as aggregates of particles. Their mutual interactions are of course considered. Such simulations permit to model the differentiated composition of the two involved bodies, i.e. heavy elements constitute the core, while lighter ones make the mantle, and to trace the outcome of the different geochimical components during and after the impact. This way, the results can be compared with our knowledge of the composition of the bodies. We can evaluate which fraction of the material of the impactor is finally reaccreted on the target, and we can also determine the consequences of hit-and-run collisions. It appears that these collisions do not leave the two bodies intact, but they may strip them from their outer layers.

Why determining their origin

It appeared from the simulations and from the observed compositions of planetary bodies, like the Earth-Moon pair, that impacts do affect the composition of the resulting bodies, and that the difference of composition between the target and the impactor may result in variations of composition after the process is completed, i.e. not only the collision, but also the coalescence of the dust cloud and the reaccretion of the debris. Determining the composition of an impacted planetary body can tell us something on the composition of the impactor.
The composition of planetary bodies depend on their location in the Solar System. The distance with the Sun affects the temperature, which itself affects the viscoelastic properties of the material. Moreover, the initial protoplanetary nebula which gave birth to the Solar System had probably a radial dependent composition, which affected the composition of the resulting planetary bodies. If we could know where an impactor came from, that would tell us something on the primordial Solar System.

The impact velocity gives the orbit of the impactor

In 2014 the first author, i.e. Alan P. Jackson, while he was in UK, lead a study in which the orbital elements of the impacted bodies were determined, in modeling the impact as an impulsive velocity kick. In the present study, the authors invert the formulae, to get the pre-impact elements from the post-impact ones, which are observed, and from the impact velocity, which is estimated by other studies.

This seems easy, but actually is not. One of the problem is that the uncertainties on the impact velocity translates into a family of possible pre-impact elements. Anyway, they give constraints on the semimajor axis, eccentricity and inclination of the impactor. Something very interesting with this method is that the inversion of analytical formulae is very fast with a computer, i.e. you can have the result in a few seconds, maybe less, while the classical method would consist to run N-body simulations during days, where you model the motions of thousands of candidate-impactors (of which you know nothing), until you observe a collision… or not.

In determining the possible pre-impact orbital elements, the authors can assess whether the impactors are likely to fall on the Sun, or to cross the orbit of another planet. In particular, a Sun-grazing solution should obviously be rejected. Moreover, the authors consider that an impactor which would have crossed the orbit of Jupiter would probably have been ejected from the Solar System. As a consequence, such a solution has only a low probability.

And now, let us have a look at the results! The authors applied their method on the formation of the Moon, of Mercury, and on the northern hemisphere of Mars.

A slow impact formed the Moon

It is widely accepted that a giant impactor, nicknamed Theia, has split the proto-Earth between the Earth and the Moon. The literature proposes us three scenarios:

  1. A canonical scenario, in which Theia is a Mars-sized object,
  2. A hit-and-run scenario, in which only part of Theia constitutes the protolunar disk,
  3. A violent scenario, which assumes that the Earth spun very fast at the time of the impact, and that the total angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system was twice the present one. This last scenario requires high impact velocities.

It appears from the results that the last of these scenarios, which requires high velocities, is much less probable than the others, because high velocities translate into highly eccentric orbits. Highly eccentric orbits are the less stable ones, in particular many of them cross the orbit of Jupiter, which could eject them from the Solar System.
So, a conclusion of this study is that the formation of the Moon probably results from a low velocity impact between the proto-Earth and Theia.

Stripping Mercury from its light elements

The composition of Mercury is intriguing, since it is anomalously dense with respect to its size. It is as if the observed Mercury would only be the core of a planet. A proposed explanation is that the proto-Mercury was composed of that core and a mantle of lighter elements (an alternative one is a depletion of lighter elements in the protoplanetary nebula in that region of the Solar System). And of course, it has been imagined that the removal of the mantle is due to a giant impact.

Two scenarios are present in the literature:

  1. A violent impact on the proto-Mercury, which would have removed the mantle,
  2. A succession of hit-and-run collisions in which the proto-Mercury would have been the impactor on the proto-Earth and / or the proto-Venus, and which would have been progressively enriched in iron.

The authors consider the multiple hit-and-run scenario as the most probable one, since it is the one involving the smallest velocities, and limits the possibility of gravitational scattering by Jupiter.

A giant impact on Mars

The North Polar Basin of Mars, or Borealis Basin, covers 40% of the surface of Mars. It may be the largest impact basin in the Solar System, and it creates a dichotomy between the northern and the southern hemispheres.

Topography of Mars, from the instrument MOLA. Borealis Basin is the large blue region in the north. © USGS
Topography of Mars, from the instrument MOLA. Borealis Basin is the large blue region in the north. © USGS

The authors stress that the exact location of Mars at the date of the impact does affect the results, in particular Earth-crossing orbits are allowed only is Mars was close to its pericentre (the location on its orbit, where it is the closest to the Sun). Anyway, they find that the impactor should have had an orbit close to the one of Mars, and suggest that its semimajor axis could have been between 1.2 and 2.2 astronomical unit (the one of Mars being 1.52 AU).

The study and its authors

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Tides in the lakes of Titan

Hi there! The satellite of Saturn Titan has hydrocarbon seas, i.e. lakes made of liquid ethane and methane. When you have a sea, or a lake, you may have tides, and this is what this study is about. I present you A numerical study of tides in Titan’s northern seas, Kraken and Ligeia Maria, by David Vincent, Özgür Karatekin, Jonathan Lambrechts, Ralph D. Lorenz, Véronique Dehant, and Éric Deleersnijder, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The lakes of Titan

The presence of hydrocarbons in such a thick atmosphere as the one of Titan has suggested since the spacecraft Voyager 1 than methane and ethane could exist in the liquid state on the surface of Titan. There could even be a cycle of methane, as there is a hydrological cycle on Earth, in which the liquid methane on the surface feeds the clouds of gaseous methane in the atmosphere, and conversely.

The spacecraft Cassini has detected dark smooth features, which revealed to be these hydrocarbon seas. Here is a list of the largest ones:

Location Diameter
Kraken Mare 68.0°N 310.0°W 1,170 km
Ligeia Mare 79.0°N 248.0°W 500 km
Punga Mare 85.1°N 339.7°W 380 km
Jingpo Lacus 73.0°N 336.0°W 240 km
Ontario Lacus 72.0°S 183.0°W 235 km
Mackay Lacus 78.32°N 97.53°W 180 km
Bolsena Lacus 75.75°N 10.28°W 101 km

I present you only the detected lakes with a diameter larger than 100 km, but some have been detected with a diameter as small as 6 km. It appears that these lakes are located at high latitudes, i.e. in the polar regions. Moreover, there is an obvious North-South asymmetry, i.e. there are much more lakes in the Northern hemisphere than in the Southern one. This could be due to the circulation of clouds of Titan: they would form near the equator, from the evaporation of liquid hydrocarbons, and migrate to the poles, where they would precipitate (i.e. rain) into lakes. Let us now focus on the largest two seas, i.e. Kraken and Ligeia Maria.

Kraken and Ligeia Maria

Kraken and Ligeia Maria are two adjacent seas, which are connected by a strait, named Trevize Fretum, which permit liquid exchanges. Kraken is composed of two basins, named Kraken 1 (north) and Kraken 2 (south), which are connected by a strait named Seldon Fretum, which dimensions are similar to the strait of Gibraltar, between Morocco and Spain.

Kraken and Ligeia Maria. © NASA
Kraken and Ligeia Maria. © NASA

Alike the Moon and Sun which raise tides on our seas, Saturn raises tides on the lakes. These tides cannot be measured yet, but they can be simulated, and this is what the authors did. In a previous study, they had simulated the tides on Ontario Lacus.

They honestly admit that the tides on Kraken and Ligeia Maria have already been simulated by other authors. Here, they use a more efficient technique, i.e. which uses less computational resources, and get consistent results.

Numerical modeling with SLIM

Computational fluid dynamics, often referred as CFD, is far from an easy task. The reason is that the dynamics of fluids in ruled by non-linear partial derivative equations like the famous Navier-Stokes, i.e. equations which depend on several variables, like the time, the temperature, the location (i.e. where are you exactly on the lake?), etc. Moreover, they depend on several parameters, some of them being barely constrained. We accurately know the gravitational tidal torque due to Saturn, however we have many uncertainties on the elasticity of the crust of Titan, on the geometry of the coast, on the bathymetry, i.e. the bottom of the seas. So, several sets of parameters have to be considered, for which numerical simulations should be run.

It is classical to use a finite element method for problems of CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics, remember?). This consists to model the seas not as continuous domains, but as a mesh of finite elements, here triangular, on which the equations are defined.
The structure of the mesh is critical. A first, maybe intuitive, approach would be to consider finite elements of equal size, but it appears that this way of integrating the equations is computationally expensive and could be optimized. Actually, the behavior of the fluid is very sensitive to the location close to the coasts, but much less in the middle of the seas. In other words, the mesh needs to be tighter at the coasts. The authors built an appropriate mesh, which is unstructured and follow the so-called Galerkin method, which adapts the mesh to the equations.

The authors then integrated the equations with their homemade SLIM software, for Second-generation Louvain-la-Neuve Ice-ocean Model. The city of Louvain-la-Neuve hosts the French speaking Belgian University Université Catholique de Louvain, where most of this study has been conducted. The model SLIM has been originally built for hydrology, to model the behavior of fluids on Earth, and its simulations have been successfully confronted to terrain measurements. It thus makes sense to use it for modeling the behavior of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan.

In this study, the authors used the 2-dimensional shallow water equations, which are depth-integrated. In other words, they directly simulated the surface rather than the whole volume of the seas, which of course requires much less computation time.
Let us now see their results.

Low diurnal tides

The authors simulated the tides over 150 Titan days. A Titan day is 15.95 days long, which is the orbital period of Titan around Saturn. During this period, the distance Titan-Saturn varies between 1,186,680 and 1,257,060 km because the orbit of Titan is eccentric, and so does the intensity of the tidal torque. This intensity also varies because of the obliquity of Titan, i.e. the tilt of its rotation axis, which is 0.3°. Because of these two quantities, we have a period of variation of 15.95 days, and its harmonics, i.e. half the period, a third of the period, etc.

It appeared from the simulations that the 15.95-d response is by far the dominant one, except at some specific locations where the tides cancel out (amphidromic points). The highest tides are 0.29 m and 0.14 m in Kraken and Ligeia, respectively.

Higher responses could have been expected in case of resonances between eigenmodes of the fluids, i.e. natural frequencies of oscillations, and the excitation frequencies due to the gravitational action of Saturn. It actually appeared that the eigenmodes, which have been computed by SLIM, have much shorter periods than the Titan day, which prevents any significant resonance. The author did not consider the whole motion of Titan around Saturn, in particular the neglected planetary perturbations, which would have induced additional exciting modes. Anyway, the corresponding periods would have been much longer than the Titan day, and would not have excited any resonance. They would just have given the annual variations of tides, with a period of 29.4 years, which is the orbital period of Saturn around the Sun.

Fluid exchanges between the lakes

SLIM permits to trace fluid particles, which reveals the fluid exchanges between the basins. Because of their narrow geometry, the straits are places where the currents are the strongest, i.e. 0.3 m/s in Seldon Fretum.
The volumetric exchanges are 3 times stronger between Kraken 1 and Kraken 2 than between Kraken and Ligeia. These exchanges behave as an oscillator, i.e. they are periodic with respect to the Titan day. As a consequence, there is a strong correlation between the volume of Kraken 1, and the one of Kraken 2. Anyway, these exchanges are weak with respect to the volume of the basins.

The attenuation is critical

The authors studied the influence of the response with respect to different parameters: the bathymetry of the seas (i.e., the geometry of the bottom), the influence of bottom friction, the depth of Trevize Fretum, and the attenuation factor γ2, which represents the viscoelastic response of the surface of Titan to the tidal excitation. It appears that γ2 plays a key role. Actually, the maximum tidal range is an increasing function of the attenuation, and in Seldon and Trevize Fretum, the maximum velocities behave as a square root of γ2. It thus affects the fluid exchanges. Moreover, these exchanges are also affected by the depth of Trevize Fretum, which is barely constrained.

Another mission to Titan is needed to better constrain these parameters!

The study and its 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. And let me wish you a healthy and happy year 2018.