Origin and fate of a binary TNO

Hi there! I have already told you about these Trans-Neptunian Objects, which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. It appears that some of them, i.e. 81 as far as we know, are binaries. As far as we know actually means that there are probably many more. These are in fact systems of 2 objects, which orbit together.

The study I present you today, The journey of Typhon-Echidna as a binary system through the planetary region, by Rosana Araujo, Mattia Galiazzo, Othon Winter and Rafael Sfair, simulates the past and future orbital motion of such a system, to investigate its origin and its fate. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Binary objects

Imagine two bodies, which are so close to each other that they interact gravitationally. You can say, OK, this is the case for the Sun and the planets, for the Earth and the Moon, for Jupiter and its satellites… Very well, but in all of those cases, one body, which we will name the primary, is much heavier than the other ones. This results as small bodies orbiting around the primary. But what happens when the mass ratio between these two bodies is rather close to unity, i.e. when two bodies of similar mass interact? Well, in that case, what we call the barycenter of the system, or the gravity center, is not close to the center of the primary, it is in fact somewhere between the two bodies. And the two bodies orbit around it. We call such a system a binary.

Binary systems may exist at every size. I am not aware of known binary giant planets, and certainly not in the Solar System, but we have binary asteroids, binary stars… and theory even predicts the existence of binary black holes! We will here restrict to binary asteroids (in the present case, binary minor planets may be more appropriate… please forgive me that).

So, you have these two similar bodies, of roughly the same size, which orbit together… their system orbiting around the Sun. A well-known example is the binary Pluto-Charon, which itself has small satellites. Currently some approximately 300 binary asteroids are known, 81 of them in the Trans-Neptunian region. The other ones are in the Main Belt and among the Near-Earth Asteroids. This last population could be the most populated by binaries, not only thanks to an observational bias (they are the easiest ones to observe, aren’t they?), but also because the YORP effect favors the fission of these Near-Earth Asteroids.

Anyway, the binary system we are interested in is located in what the authors call the TNO-Centaurs region.

The TNOs-Centaurs region

The name of that region of the Solar System may seem odd, it is due to a lack of consistency in the literature. Basically, the Trans-Neptunian region is the one beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the Centaurs are the asteroids orbiting between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune. This would be very clear if the orbit of Neptune was a legal border… but it is not. What happens when the asteroid orbits on average beyond Neptune, but is sometimes inside? You have it: some call these bodies TNO-Centaurs. Actually they are determined following two conditions:

  1. The semimajor axis must be larger than the one of Neptune, i.e. 30.110387 astronomical units (AU),
  2. and the distance between the Sun and the perihelion should be below that number, the perihelion being the point of the orbit, which is the closest to the Sun.

The distance between the Sun and the asteroid varies when the orbit is not circular, i.e. has a non-null eccentricity, making it elliptic.

When I speak of the orbit of an asteroid, that should be understood as the orbit of the barycenter, for a binary. And the authors recall us that there are two known binary systems in this TNOs-Centaurs region: (42355) Typhon-Echidna, and (65489) Ceto-Phorcys. Today we are interested by (42355) Typhon-Echidna.

(42355) Typhon-Echidna

(42355) Typhon has been discovered in February 2002 by the NEAT program (Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking). This was a survey operating between 1995 and 2007 at Palomar Observatory in California. It was jointly run by the NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can find below some orbital and characteristics of the binary around the Sun, from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser:

Semimajor axis 38.19 AU
Eccentricity 0.54
Perihelion 17.57 AU
Inclination 2.43°
Orbital period 236.04 yr

As you can see, the orbit is very eccentric, which explains why the binary is considered to be in this gray zone at the border between the Centaurs and the TNOs.

Discovery of Typhon in Feb. 2002, then known as 2002 CR<sub>46</sub>. © NEAT
Discovery of Typhon in Feb. 2002, then known as 2002 CR<sub>46</sub>. © NEAT

And you can find below the orbital characteristics of the orbit of Echidna, which was discovered in 2006:

Semimajor axis 1580 ± 20 km
Eccentricity 0.507 ± 0.009
Inclination 42° ± 2°
Orbital period 18.982 ± 0.001 d

These data have been taken from Johnston’s Archive. Once more, you can see a very eccentric orbit. Such high eccentricities do not look good for the future stability of the object… and this will be confirmed by this study.

In addition to these data, let me add that the diameters of these two bodies are 162 ± 7 and 89 ±6 km, respectively, Typhon being the largest one. Moreover, water ice has been detected on Typhon, which means that it could present some cometary activity if it gets closer to the Sun.

The remarkable orbit of the binary, which is almost unique since only two binaries are known in the TNOs-Centaurs region, supplemented by the fact it is a binary, motivated the authors to specifically study its long-term orbital migration in the Solar System. In other words, its journey from its past to its death.

It should originate from the TNOs-Centaurs region

For investigating this, the authors started from the known initial conditions of the binary, seen as a point mass. In other words, they considered only one object in each simulation, with initial orbital elements very close to the current ones. They ran in fact 100 backward numerical simulations, differing by the initial conditions, provided they were consistent with our knowledge of them. They had to be in the confidence interval.

In all of these trajectories, the gravitational influence of the planets from Venus to Neptune, and of Pluto, was included. They ran these 100 backward simulations over 100 Myr, in using an adaptive time-step algorithm from the integrator Mercury. I do not want to go too deep in the specific, but keep in mind that this algorithm is symplectic, which implies that it should remain accurate for long-term integrations. An important point is the adaptive time-step: when you run numerical integrations, you express the positions and velocities at given dates. The separation between these dates, i.e. the time-step, depends on the variability of the force you apply. The specificity of the dynamics of such eccentric bodies is that they are very sensitive to close encounters with planets, especially (but not only) the giant ones. In that case, you need a pretty short time-step, but only when you are close to the planet. When you are far, it is more advisable to use a larger time-step. Not only to go faster, but also to prevent the accumulation of round-off errors.

It results from these backward simulations that most of the clones of Typhon are still in the TNOs-Centaurs regions 100 Myr ago.

But the authors also investigated the fate of Typhon!

It should be destroyed before 200 Myr

For that, they used the same algorithm to run 500 forward trajectories. And this is where things may become dramatic: Typhon should not survive. In none of them. The best survivor is destroyed after 163 Myr, which is pretty short with respect to the age of the Solar System… but actually very optimistic.

Only 20% of the clones survive after 20 Myr, and the authors estimate the median survival time to be 5.2 Myr. Typhon is doomed! And the reason for that is the close encounters with the planets. The most efficient killer is unsurprisingly Jupiter, because of its large mass.

Interestingly, 42 of these clones entered the inner Solar System. This is why we cannot exclude a future cometary activity of Typhon: in getting closer to the Sun, it will warm, and the water ice may sublimate.

All of these simulations have considered the binary to be a point-mass. Investigating whether it will remain a binary requires other, dedicated simulations.

Will it remain a binary?

The relevant time-step for a binary is much shorter than for a point mass, just because the orbital period of Typhon around the Sun is 236 years, while the one of Echidna around Typhon is only 19 days! This also implies that a full trajectory, over 200 Myr, will require so many iterations that it should suffer from numerical approximations. The authors by-passed this problem in restricting to the close encounters with planets. When they detected a close encounter in an orbital simulation of Typhon, they ran 12,960 simulations of the orbit of Echidna over one year. Once more, these simulations differ by the initial conditions, here the initial orbital elements of Echidna around Typhon.

The authors concluded that it is highly probable that the binary survived close encounters with planets, as a binary. In other words, if Typhon survives, then Echidna should survive.

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.

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