9 interstellar asteroids?

Hi there! You may have recently heard of 1I/’Oumuamua, initially known as C/2017 U1, then A/2017 U1 (see here), where C stands for comet, A for asteroid, and I for interstellar object. This small body visited us last fall on a hyperbolic orbit, i.e. it came very fast from very far away, flew us by, and then left… and we shall never see it again. ‘Oumuamua has probably been formed in another planetary system, and its visit has motivated numerous studies. Some observed it to determine its shape, its composition, its rotation… and some conducted theoretical studies to understand its origin, its orbit… The study I present you today, Where the Solar system meets the solar neighbourhood: patterns in the distribution of radiants of observed hyperbolic minor bodies, by Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, and Sverre J. Aarseth, is a theoretical one, but with a broader scope. This study examines the orbits of 339 objects on hyperbolic orbits, to try to determine their origin, in particular which of them might be true interstellar interlopers. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

‘Oumuamua

I detail the discovery of ‘Oumuamua there. Since that post, we know that ‘Oumuamua is a red dark object, probably dense. It is tumbling, i.e. does not rotate around a single rotation axis, in about 8 hours. The uncertainties on the rotation period are pretty important, because of this tumbling motion. Something really unexpected is huge variations of brightness, which should reveal either a cigar-shaped object, or an object with extreme variations of albedo, i.e. bright regions alternating with dark ones… but that would be inconsistent with the spectroscopy, revealing a reddish object. This is why the dimensions of ‘Oumuamua are estimated to be 230 × 35 × 35 meters.

Artist's impression of 'Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser

One wonders where ‘Oumuamua comes from. An extrapolation of its orbit shows that it comes from the current direction of the star Vega, in constellation Lyra… but when it was there, the star was not there, since it moved… We cannot actually determine around which star, and when, ‘Oumuamua has been formed.

Anyway, it was a breakthrough discovery, as the first certain interstellar object, with an eccentricity of 1.2. But other bodies have eccentricities larger than 1, which make them unstable in the Solar System, i.e. gravitationally unbound to the Sun… Could some of them be interstellar interlopers? This is the question addressed by the study. If you want to understand what I mean by eccentricity, hyperbolic orbit… just read the next section.

Hyperbolic orbits

The simplest orbit you can find is a circular one: the Sun is at the center, and the planetary object moves on a circle around the Sun. In such a case, the eccentricity of the orbit is 0. Now, if you get a little more eccentric, the trajectory becomes elliptical, and you will have periodic variations of the distance between the Sun and the object. And the Sun will not be at the center of the trajectory anymore, but at a focus. The eccentricity of the Earth is 0.017, which induces a closest distance of 147 millions km, and a largest one of 152 millions km… these variations are pretty limited. However, Halley’s comet has an eccentricity of 0.97. And if you exceed 1, then the trajectory will not be an ellipse anymore, but a branch of hyperbola. In such a case, the object can just make a fly-by of the Sun, before going back to the interstellar space.

Wait, it is a little more complicated than that. In the last paragraph, I assumed that the eccentricity, and more generally the orbital elements, were constant. This is true if you have only the Sun and your object (2-body, or Kepler, problem). But you have the gravitational perturbations of planets, stars,… and the consequence is that these orbital elements vary with time. You so may have a hyperbolic orbit becoming elliptical, in which case an interstellar interloper gets trapped, or conversely a Solar System object might be ejected, its eccentricity getting larger than 1.

The authors listed three known mechanisms, likely to eject a Solar System object:

  1. Close encounter with a planet,
  2. Secular interaction with the Galactic disk (in other words, long term effects due to the cumulative interactions with the stars constituting our Milky Way),
  3. Close encounter with a star.

339 hyperbolic objects

The authors identified 339 objects, which had an eccentricity larger than 1 on 2018 January 18. The objects were identified thanks to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, and the Minor Planet Center database. The former is due to NASA, and the latter to the International Astronomical Union.

Once the authors got their inputs, they numerically integrated their orbits backward, over 100 kyr. These integrations were made thanks to a dedicated N-body code, powerful and optimized for long-term integration. Such algorithm is far from trivial. It consists in numerically integrating the equations of the motion of all of these 339 objects, perturbed by the Sun, the eight planets, the system Pluto-Charon, and the largest asteroids, in paying attention to the numerical errors at each iteration. This step is critical, to guarantee the validity of the results.

Some perturbed by another star

And here is the result: the authors have found that some of these objects had an elliptical orbit 100 kyr ago, meaning that they probably formed around the Sun, and are on the way to be expelled. The authors also computed the radiants of the hyperbolic objects, i.e. the direction from where they came, and they found an anisotropic distribution, i.e. there are preferred directions. Such a result has been obtained in comparing the resulting radiants from the ones given by a random process, and the distance between these 2 results is estimated to be statistically significant enough to conclude an anisotropic distribution. So, this result in not based on a pattern detected by the human eye, but on statistical calculations.

In particular, the authors noted an excess of radiants in the direction of the binary star WISE J072003.20-084651.2, also known as Scholz’s star, which is currently considered as the star having had the last closest approach to our Solar System, some 70 kilo years ago. In other words, the objects having a radiant in that direction are probably Solar System objects, and more precisely Oort cloud objects, which are being expelled because of the gravitational kick given by that star.

8 candidate interlopers

So, there is a preferred direction for the radiants, but ‘Oumuamua, which is so eccentric that it is the certain interstellar object, is an outlier in this radiant distribution, i.e. its radiant is not in the direction of Scholz’s star, and so cannot be associated with this process. Moreover, its asymptotical velocity, i.e. when far enough from the Sun, is too large to be bound to the Sun. And this happens for 8 other objects, which the authors identify as candidate interstellar interlopers. These 8 objects are

  • C/1853 RA (Brunhs),
  • C/1997 P2 (Spacewatch),
  • C/1999 U2 (SOHO),
  • C/2002 A3 (LINEAR),
  • C/2008 J4 (McNaught),
  • C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes),
  • C/2012 S1 (ISON),
  • C/2017 D3 (ATLAS).

Do we know just one, or 9 interstellar objects? Or between 1 and 9? Or more than 9? This is actually an important question, because that would constrain the number of detections to be expected in the future, and have implications for planetary formation in our Galaxy. And if these objects are interstellar ones, then we should try to investigate their physical properties (pretty difficult since they are very small and escaping, but we did it for ‘Oumuamua… maybe too late for the 8 other guys).

Anyway, more will be known in the years to come. More visitors from other systems will probably be discovered, and we will also know more on the motion of the stars passing by, thanks to the astrometric satellite Gaia. Stay tuned!

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, Instagram, and Pinterest.

The activity of Chiron

Hi there! You may have heard of Chiron, which was he first Centaur discovered, in 1977. This minor planet may have rings, and seems to present some cometary activity, which cause needs to be discussed. This is the topic of the present study, i.e. Activity of (2060) Chiron possibly caused by impacts?, by Stefan Cikota, Estela Fernández-Valenzuela, Jose Luis Ortiz, Nicolás Morales, René Duffard, Jesus Aceituno, Aleksandar Cikota and Pablo Santos-Sanz. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Chiron’s facts

Chiron was the first discovered Centaur, i.e. the first asteroid / small planet, which orbits between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. It was discovered in 1977, in the sense that it was identified in 1977. But reexamination of past photographic plates show that it has in fact been observed since 1895. And from the reanalysis of the pre-discovery observations, it was easy to determine an orbit.

Discovery 1977
First observation 1895
Apparent magnitude 19
Absolute magnitude 6
Diameter 220 km
Semimajor axis 13.648 AU
Eccentricity 0.3823
Inclination 6.9497°
Orbital period 50.42 yr
Rotation 5.918 h

The orbital period of Chiron is a slightly longer than 50 years, which means that we dispose of astrometric observations over more than 2 periods. This orbit is highly eccentric, which results in large variations of the distance to the Sun, i.e. between 8.43 AU (astronomical units) at perihelion, and 18.86 AU at aphelion.

A spectral analysis of Chiron reveals a C-type, i.e. a carbonaceous, object. Moreover, it shows large variations of brightness, which are considered to be partly due to cometary activity, and partly due to rings. This cometary activity makes that Chiron, officially the asteroid (2060)Chiron, can also be called the comet 95P/Chiron.

Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura
Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura

The presence of rings around Chiron is not unanimously accepted in the scientific community. Unexpected stellar occultations by something orbiting close to Chiron could be interpreted either as cometary jets, or as rings. But the large variations of brightness and the discoveries of rings around Chariklo and Haumea speak for the presence of rings. The discovery of rings around Chariklo was very surprising, and showed that it is possible. The discovery around Haumea has shown that rings around such bodies were not exceptional. So, why not Chiron? In this study, the authors clearly state that they believe in the presence of rings, and they use it to study the brightness of Chiron. These rings would have a radius of 324 ± 10 km, which is inside the estimated Roche limit of Chiron, i.e. the particles constituting the rings could not accrete into a larger body.

But the central point is the cometary activity, i.e. evidence for cometary jets is reported.

Triggering a cometary activity

Classical comets behave this way: these are dirty snowballs, i.e. made of ice, dust, and some other elements. When approaching the Sun, the comet gets so warm that the ice is sublimated. But a Centaur with cometary activity is different, since it does not get closer to the Sun. Moreover, Chiron is essentially carbonaceous. So, another cause has to be found. And in such a case, it is often tempting to invoke impacts.

A problem is that impacts are not that frequent in that region of the Solar System. First because the gravitational action of the Sun tends to focus the orbits of the potential impactors, i.e. they will be more inclined to get closer to the Sun, and second because, the more distant from the Sun you are, the emptier the space appears, this is just a geometrical effect.
The consequences of these effects is that a collision of a 1km-radius comet is expected on a body like Chiron every 60 Gyr… while the age of the Solar System is 4.5 Gyr… quite unlikely.

Photometric observations

Anyway, Chiron is known to have some cometary activity, and the author tracked it from Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA) in Almeria, Spain, during 3 observation campaigns, between 2014 and 2016. The first campaign was primarily devoted to the study of the rotation of Chiron, and consisted of 3 runs in 2014, using the 3.5 and the 1.23 m telescopes. The second campaign was conducted in September 2015 on the 2.2 m telescope, with the CAFOS instrument (Calar Alto Faint Object Spectrograph), and looked for rotation, absolute magnitude, and cometary activity. The third campaign took place on 2016, September 2, to get a better constraint on Chiron’s absolute magnitude, once again with CAFOS.

The authors were particularly interested in the photometry, since cometary jets translate into variations of brightness. For that, they had to correct the variations due to observational constraints, and to the orientation of Chiron.

The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal
The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal

Observational constraints are likely to give artificial variations of photometry, since

  • the height of Chiron on the horizon varies, which means that the thickness of the atmosphere varies,
  • the wind might result in unstable images (seeing),
  • the detectors are different, even on the same instrument,etc.

To try to make things as proper as possible, the authors corrected the images from flat fielding, i.e. from the variations of the response of the CCD chip, and they observed a large enough field (at least 16 arcmin), to have the same stars as photometric references.

Regarding the orientation of Chiron, variations of brightness can reveal:

  • the rotation of Chiron, which would present different surface elements to the observer,
  • the orientation of the rings.

These two effects were modeled, to be removed from the photometric measurements. And the result is…

Impacts from the rings

The authors do observe a small cometary activity on Chiron, which is pretty faint. It has actually been stronger in the past, a measurement in 1973 showed a peak with respect to another measurement in 1970, and since then the coma is monotonously decreasing. The authors interpret that as a possible small impact having occurred between 1970 and 1973, the associated coma tail having almost disappeared. This activity appears to be supplemented by a continuous micro-activity, which could be due to impacts by small particles falling from the rings.

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, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Ice on Mercury

Hi there! You know Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System. It has recently been explored during 4 years by the American spacecraft MESSENGER, which gave us invaluable data on its surface, its magnetic field, its interior…
Today I present you a study on the ice on Mercury. It is entitled Constraining the thickness of polar ice deposits on Mercury using the Mercury Laser Altimeter and small craters in permanently shadowed regions, by Ariel N. Deutsch, James W. Head, Nancy L. Chabot & Gregory A. Neumann, and has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.
We know that there is some ice at the surface of Mercury, and the study wonders how much. Since Mercury is close to the Sun, its surface is usually hot enough to sublimate the ice… except in permanently shadowed regions, i.e. in craters. For that, the authors compared the measured depth of small craters, and compared it with the expected depth from the excavation of material by an impactor. The difference is supposed to be ice deposit.

Mercury and MESSENGER

The planet Mercury is known at least since the 14th century BC. It was named after the Roman messenger god Mercurius, or Hermes in Greek, since the messengers saw it at dawn when they left, and at dusk when they arrived. The reason is that Mercury is in fact pretty close to the Sun, i.e. three times closer than our Earth. So, usually the Sun is so bright that it prevents us from observing it. Unless it is below the horizon, which happens at dawn and at dusk.

Mercury makes a full revolution around the Sun in 88 days, and a full rotation in 58 days. This 2/3 ratio is a dynamical equilibrium, named 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which has been reached after slow despinning over the ages. This despinning is indeed a loss of energy, which has been favored by the tidal (gravitational) action of the Sun. This resulting spin-orbit resonant configuration is a unique case in the Solar System. A consequence is that the Solar day on Mercury lasts 176 days, i.e. if you live on Mercury, the apparent course of the Sun in the sky lasts 176 days.

The proximity of the Sun makes Mercury a challenge for exploration. Mariner 10 made 3 fly-bys of it in 1974-1975, mapping 45% of its surface, and measuring a tiny magnetic field. We had to wait until 2011 for the US spacecraft MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) to be the first human-made object inserted into orbit around Mercury. The orbital phase lasted 4 years, and gave us a full map of the planet, gravity data, accurate measurements of its rotation, a list of craters, measurements of the magnetic field,…

The instrument of interest today is named MLA, for Mercury Laser Altimeter. This instrument used an infrared laser (wavelength: 1,064 nanometers) to estimate the height of the surface from the reflection of the laser: you send a laser signal, you get it back some time later, and from the time you have the distance, since you know the velocity, which is the velocity of the light. And in applying this technique all along the orbit, you produce a map of the whole planet. This permits for instance to estimate the size and depth of the craters.

The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).
The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).

Ice on Mercury

The discovery of ice at the poles of Mercury was announced in 1992. It was permitted by Earth-based radar imagery made at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave desert, in California (USA). Ice is pretty easy to uncover, because of its high reflectivity. But this raises some questions:

  1. How can ice survive on Mercury?
  2. How much ice is there?
  3. How did it arrive?
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google

The first question is not really a mystery. Because of its long Solar day and its absence of atmosphere (actually Mercury has a very tenuous exosphere, but we can forget it), Mercury experiences huge variations of temperature between day and night, i.e. from 100K to 700K, or -173°C to 427°C, or -279°F to 801°F (it is in fact not accurate at the 1°F level…). So, when a region is illuminated, the water ice is definitely not stable. However, there are regions, especially at the poles, which are never illuminated. There ice can survive.

The last two questions are answered by this study.

Ice is still present in craters

For not being illuminated, it helps to be close to a pole, but the topography can be helpful as well. The surface of Mercury is heavily cratered, and the bottoms of some of these craters are always hidden from the Sun. This is where the authors looked for ice. More precisely, they investigated 10 small craters within 10 degrees of the north pole. And for each of them, they estimated the expected depth from the diameter, and compared it with the measured depth. If it does not match, then you have water ice at the bottom. Easy, isn’t it?

The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA
The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA

Well, it is not actually that easy. The question is: did the water ice arrive after or before the excavation of the crater? If it arrived before, then the impactor just excavated some ice, and the measurements do not tell you anything.

Another challenge is to deal with the uncertainties. MLA was a wonderful instrument, with an accuracy smaller than the meter. Very well. But you are not that accurate if you want to predict the depth of a crater from its diameter. The authors used an empirical formula proposed by another study: d=(0.17±0.04)D0.96±0.11, where d is the depth, and D the diameter. The problem is the ±, i.e. that formula is not exact. This uncertainty is physically relevant, since the depth of the crater might depend on the incidence angle of the impact, which you don’t know, or on the material at the exact location of the impact… and this is a problem, since you cannot be that accurate on the theoretical depth of the crater. The authors provide a numerical example: a 400-m diameter crater has an expected depth between 21.2 and 127.7 m… So, there is a risk that the thickness of ice that you would measure would be so uncertain that actual detection would be unsure. And this is what happens in almost of all the craters. But the detection is secured by the fact that several craters are involved: the more data you have, the lower the uncertainties. And the ice thickness derived from several craters is more accurate than the one derived from a single crater.

Results: how much ice?

And the result is: the ice thickness is 41+30-14m. The uncertainty is large, but the number remains positive anyway, which means that the detection is positive! Moreover, it is consistent with previous studies, from the detection of polar ice with Goldstone facilities, to similar studies on other regions of Mercury. So, there is ice on Mercury.
An extrapolation of this result suggests that the total mass of water ice on the surface of Mercury is “1014-1015 kg, which is equivalent to ~100-1,000 km3 ice in volume, assuming pure water ice with no porosity” (quoted from the study).

The origin of ice

Mercury is a dense planet, i.e. too dense for such a small planet. It is widely accepted that Mercury as we see it constituted a core of a proto-Mercury, which has been stripped from its mantle of lighter elements. Anyway, Mercury is too dense for the water ice to originate from it. It should come from outside, i.e. it has been brought by impactors. The authors cite studies stating that such a quantity could have been brought by micrometeorites, by Jupiter-family comets, and even by a single impactor.

Another spacecraft soon

Such a study does not only exploit the MESSENGER data, but is also a way to anticipate the future measurements by Bepi-Colombo. This mission will be constituted of two orbiters, one supervised by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the other one by the Japanese agency JAXA. Bepi-Colombo should be launched in October 2018 from Kourou (French Guiana), and inserted into orbit around Mercury in April 2026. Its accuracy is expected to be 10 times better than the one of MESSENGER, and the studies inferring results from MESSENGER data can be seen as predictions for Bepi-Colombo.

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, Instagram, and (NEW) Pinterest.