The 4 small satellites seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Forming Pluto’s satellites

Hi there! A team from the University of Hong Kong has recently explored a scenario of formation of the small satellites of Pluto. You know, there are 4 small bodies, named Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, which orbit around the binary Trans-Neptunian Object Pluto-Charon. At this time, we don’t know yet how they were formed, and how they ended up at their present locations, despite the data that the spacecraft New Horizons sent us recently. The study I present you today, On the early in situ formation of Pluto’s small satellites, by Jason Man Yin Woo and Man Hoi Lee, simulates the early evolution of the Pluto-Charon system. It has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The satellites of Pluto

The American Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. He examined photographic plates taken at Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, USA, and detected a moving object, which thus could not be a star. The International Astronomical Union considered Pluto to be the ninth planet of the Solar System, until 2006. At that time, numerous discoveries of distant objects motivated the creation of the class of dwarf planets, Pluto being one of the largest of them.

The other American astronomer James W. Christy discovered a companion to Pluto, Charon, in June 1978. Still at Flagstaff.

The existence of far objects in our Solar System motivated the launch of the space missions New Horizons in 2006. New Horizons made a close approach of the system of Pluto in July 2015, and is currently en route to the Trans-Neptunian Object 2014MU69. The closest approach is scheduled for January, 1st 2019.

In parallel to the preparation of New Horizons, the scientific team performed observations of Pluto-Charon with the famous Hubble Space Telescope. And they discovered 4 small satellites: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. You can find some of their characteristics below, which are due to New Horizons.

Charon Styx Nix Kerberos Hydra
Discovery 1978 2012 2005 2011 2005
Semimajor axis 17,181 km 42,656 km 48,694 km 57,783 km 64,738 km
Eccentricity 0 0.006 0 0.003 0.006
Inclination 0.8° 0.1° 0.4° 0.2°
Orbital period 6.39 d 20.16 d 24.85 d 32.17 d 38.20 d
Spin period 6.39 d 3.24 d 1.829 d 5.31 d 0.43 d
Mean diameter 1,214 km 10.5 km 39 km 12 km 42 km
Styx seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Styx seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Nix seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Nix seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Kerberos seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Kerberos seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Hydra seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Hydra seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

We should compare these numbers to the ones of Pluto: a mean diameter of 2370 km, and a spin period of 6.39 d. This implies that:

  • Pluto and Charon are two large objects, with respect to the other satellites. So, Pluto-Charon should be seen as a binary TNO, and the other four objects are satellites of the binary.
  • Pluto and Charon are in a state of double synchronous spin-orbite resonance: their rotation rate is the same, and is the same that their mutual orbital motion. If you are on the surface of Pluto, facing a friend of yours on the surface of Charon, you will always face her. This is probably the most stable dynamical equilibrium, reached after dissipation of energy over the ages.

And the four small satellites orbit outside the mutual orbits of Pluto and Charon.

Proximity of Mean-Motion Resonances

We can notice that:

  • the orbital period of Styx is close to three times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Nix is close to four times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Kerberos is close to five times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Hydra is close to six times the one of Charon.

Close to, but not exactly. This suggests the influence of mean-motion resonances of their orbital motion, i.e. the closest distance between Charon and Styx will happen every 3 orbits of Charon at the same place, so you can have a cumulative effect on the orbit. And the same thing would happen for the other objects. But this is actually not that clear whether that cumulative effect would be significant or not, and if yes, how it would affect the orbits. Previous studies suggest that it translates into a tiny zone of stability for Kerberos, provided that Nix and Hydra are not too massive.

Anyway, the authors wondered why these four satellites are currently at their present location.

Testing a scenario of formation

They addressed this question in testing the following scenario: Charon initially impacted Pluto, and the debris resulting from the impact created the four small satellites. To test this scenario, they ran long-term numerical simulations of small, test particles, perturbed by Pluto and Charon. Pluto and Charon were not in the current state, but in a presumed early one, before the establishment of the two synchronous rotations, and with and without a significant initial eccentricity for Charon. The authors simulated the orbital evolution, the system evolving over the action of gravitational mutual interactions, and tides.

The long-term evolution is ruled by tides

The tides are basically the dissipation of energy in a planetary body, due to the difference of force exerted at different points of the body. This results in stress, and is modeled as a tidal bulge, which points to the direction of the perturber. The dissipation of energy is due to the small angular shift between the orientation of the bulge and the direction of the perturber. The equilibrium configuration of Pluto-Charon, i.e. the two synchronous rotations, suggest that the binary is tidally evolved.

The authors applied tides only on Pluto and Charon, and considered two tidal models:

  1. A constant time delay between the tidal excitation and the response of the tidal bulge,
  2. A constant angular shift between the tidal bulge and the direction of the perturber.

The tidal models actually depend on the properties of the material, and the frequency of the excitation. In such a case, the frequency of the excitation depends on the two rotation rates of Pluto and Charon, and on their orbital motions. The properties of the material, in particular the rigidity and the viscosity, are ruled by the temperatures of the objects, which are not necessarily constant in space and in time, since tidal stress tend to heat the object. Here the authors did not consider a time variation of the tidal parameters.

Other models, which are probably more physically realistic but more complex, exist in the literature. Let me cite the Maxwell model, which assumes two regimes for the response of the planetary body: elastic for slow excitations, i.e. not dissipative, and dissipative for fast excitations. The limit between fast and slow is indicated by the Maxwell time, which depends on the viscosity and the rigidity of the object.

Anyway, the authors ran different numerical simulations, with the two tidal models (constant angular shift and constant time delay), with different numbers and different initial eccentricities for Charon. And in all of these simulations, they monitored the fate of independent test particles orbiting in the area.

Possible scenario, but…

The authors seem disappointed by their results. Actually, some of the particles are affected by mean-motion resonances, some other are ejected, but the simulations show that particles may end up at the current locations of Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. However, their current locations, i.e. close to mean-motion resonances, do not appear to be preferred places for formation. This means that we still do not know why the satellites are where they currently are, and not somewhere else.

What’s next?

The next target of New Horizons is 2014MU69, which we will be the first object explored by a spacecraft, which had been launched before the object was known to us. We should expect many data.

The study and its authors

You can find here

  • The study, made freely available by the authors on arXiv, thanks to them for sharing!
  • and the homepage of Man Hoi Lee.

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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