Triton from the Earth

Hi there! Today we speak about Triton. Triton is something unique in the Solar System. It is a large satellite of Neptune, which has almost no mid-sized satellite, contrary to Saturn and Uranus. Several studies show us that Triton could have been a cuckoo, i.e. initially a Trans-Neptunian Objects, which has been trapped by the gravitational field of Neptune, and which is massive enough to have ejected the mid-sized satellites.
Triton has been visited only once, by NASA’s Voyager 2 in 1989. This was only a fly-by, so we have images of only 40% of the surface. But the development of Earth-based instruments now permits to get data from the Earth, even if the apparent magnitude of Triton is 13.47 (Neptune is very far away…).

This is the opportunity to present Triton’s surface ices: Distribution, temperature and mixing state from VLT/SINFONI observations, by F. Merlin, E. Lellouch, E. Quirico and B. Schmitt, all based in France, even if they used European facilities based in Chile. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

Triton’s facts

The table below gives you some numbers.

Discovery 1846
Radius 1,353 km
Semimajor axis 354,759 km
Orbital period 5.88 days
Eccentricity 2×10-5
Inclination 157°

You can see first that Triton has been discovered in October 1846, by the British astronomer William Lassell. The discovery happened 10 days after the discovery of Neptune, and this is of course not by chance. When the discovery of a planet is made and announced, it is much easier, or much less difficult, to re-observe it, since you know where to point your telescope. So, Neptune has been reobserved, and Lassell saw this point following Neptune. You can distinguish a satellite from a background star by the fact that the satellite follows the planet in its apparent motion. This was Triton. And Triton was the only known satellite of Neptune during more than one century, until the discovery of Nereid by Gerard Kuiper in 1949.

As I said, Triton is pretty large, and its orbit is almost circular, as for many natural satellites of the giant planets. The tidal interaction with the parent planet tends to circularize the orbit, unless the eccentricity is excited by the action of another satellite… which cannot be the case around Neptune, since no satellite is heavy enough to move Triton.

A trapped object…

The interesting point about the dynamics of Triton is its orbital inclination. While natural satellites usually orbit close to the equatorial plane of their planet, Triton has a very large inclination, and its orbit is retrograde with respect to the rotation of Neptune. Usually, the natural satellites are formed with the planet, in the proto-planetary nebula, which is pretty flat… this is why their inclinations should be small. The inclination of Triton suggests it was not formed in situ, but has been trapped instead. Several studies have simulated this phenomenon, see e.g. your favorite blog.

…visited by Voyager 2

NASA’s Voyager 2 has been launched in August 1977 from Cape Canaveral, and it benefited from a favorable geometrical configuration of the planets. This virtual alignment permitted to fly by Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus in 1986, and Neptune in 1989. Voyager 2 is still operating, as an interstellar mission.

Only a fly by may be frustrating, but for a spacecraft to be inserted an orbit around a planet, it must reach it slowly enough… which means take enough time to reach it. Neptune is so far away that we could not wait. So, its closest approach to Neptune was on August 25, 1989, and the closest to Triton 3 days later, imaging 40% of its surface (see video below, made by Paul Schenk, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, TX, USA).

It revealed an active surface, i.e. few craters, which means that the surface is renewing, and geological features, craters, ridges, plains, maculae… and even volcanic plumes. It also confirmed the presence of an atmosphere.

The atmosphere of Triton

Triton has a very tenuous atmosphere, which pressure is 70,000 times lower than the one of the Earth, i.e. some 14 μbar. It is dominated by nitrogen, and extends 800 kilometers above its surface. Methane and carbon monoxide are also present. Its temperature is around 40 K, and Voyager 2 measured winds from the west from the surface to an altitude of 8 km, where the winds invert their directions, i.e. from east to west.

This atmosphere is probably the result of outgassing of surface material and volcanic activity (geysers). It can be seen as an equilibrium between a solid phase at the surface, and a gaseous one in the atmosphere, of some of its constituents. The study I present today analyses the chemical elements present at the surface, which interact with the atmosphere. The used facility is the instrument SINFONI, on the Very Large Telescope (Paranal Observatory, Chile).

THE VLT/SINFONI instrument

The Very Large Telescope, VLT for short, is a facility operated by the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama desert, Chile. It benefits from a very favorable sky, at an altitude of 2,635 meters, and consists of 4 refractors, Antu, Kueyen, Melipal, and Yepun, each with a primary mirror of 8.2 meters.

SINFONI, for Spectrograph for Integral Field Observations in the Near Infrared, operates on Yepun, and observes in the near-infrared, i.e. at wavelengths between 1 and 2.45 μm. You can find below its first light in July 2004, observing the star HD 130163.

"First Light" "data cube" spectrum obtained with SINFONI on the bright star HD 130163 on July 9, 2004, as seen on the science data computer screen. This 7th-magnitude A0 V star was observed in the near-infrared H-band with a moderate seeing of 0.8 arcsec. The width of the slitlets in this image is 0.25 arcsec. The exposure time was 1 second. © ESO
“First Light” “data cube” spectrum obtained with SINFONI on the bright star HD 130163 on July 9, 2004, as seen on the science data computer screen. This 7th-magnitude A0 V star was observed in the near-infrared H-band with a moderate seeing of 0.8 arcsec. The width of the slitlets in this image is 0.25 arcsec. The exposure time was 1 second. © ESO

As a spectrometer, it decomposes the light it observes following its wavelengths. You can find above a spectrum, on which you can see several minimums. These minimums are absorption lines, which reveal the presence of a chemical element. And this is the idea: the authors decomposed the Solar light reflected by the surface of Triton, to detect the chemical elements constituting it.

Spectral measurements

The authors made 5 observations between 2010 and 2013, each of them lasting between 40 and 55 minutes. They supplemented their data set with two observations dating back to 1995, and one to 2008. The 1995 observations were made at Mauna Kea Observatory, Hawaii.
Two spectral bands were investigated: the H band (1.5 to 1.8 μm) and the K band (2 to 2.45 μm). Once the data are acquired, they must be corrected from the influence of the Earth atmosphere and the one of Triton, which have themselves constituents which absorb the light. Pretty easy for correcting the telluric lines, however the authors admit that the correction from Triton’s atmosphere is not entirely satisfactory, given the accuracy of data we dispose on. In particular, this correction might add an artificial signature of methane.

After these corrections, and some that I do not detail, you have the spectra… What do to with that?

Lab experiments to understand the data

The spectrum should look like something we know. We know the absorption lines of methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen… but not necessarily under Triton’s conditions. The temperature at the surface should be around 40 K, i.e. -235°C / -390°F, to permit the coexistence of the solid and gaseous phases of these elements, without liquid phase, with a pressure of 14μbar. And when you look at the spectrum, you do not only have the location of the absorption lines, but also their amplitudes, which depend on many parameters, like the temperature, the grain size, the relative fraction of these components, and corrections accounting for instrumental constraints.
To get these parameters, the authors made several lab experiments in Grenoble (France), got plenty of spectra, and fitted their observations of Triton on them. Actually, lab experiments have been made in the past and used to previous studies, but in the present case this wasn’t enough, given the resolution of the new data.

And now, the results!


The results are essentially a confirmation of previous studies, but with a better resolution, and new data, which gives access to time variations of the composition. Actually, the variations of the distance to the Sun results in variations of temperature, which perturb the equilibrium between the solid and the gaseous phases.

Regarding the different constituents:

  • The methane (CH4) is mostly in diluted form.
  • At least two populations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are present, with grain sizes of 5 μm and 25 μm, respectively.
  • The carbon monoxide (CO) is mostly present in diluted form into nitrogen ice.
  • The nitrogen (N2) ice temperature is 37.5±1 K.

The study confirms already known longitudinal variations of the nitrogen and carbon monoxide surface abundances, and suggests latitudinal and/or temporal variations.

This may be anecdotal, but the authors have detected two unexpected absorption lines, at 2.102 μm and 2.239 μm. The first one being present in one spectrum only, while the last one is detected on the three spectra. What do they mean? We do not know yet.

So, you see, it is possible to get data on Triton from our Earth. But a space mission to Neptune would be much more fruitful. But this is a very strong challenge. Even a mission to Uranus seems to become difficult to fund. Some scientists fight for that. But anyway, do not forget that you will be much older than you are now when such a mission would reach its destination, if launched now…

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.

Locating Ultima Thule

Hi there! First I have to explain the title. Ultima Thule usually stands for any place beyond the known world… Actually, we will not leave the Solar System. Ultima Thule is an unofficial nickname for (486958) 2014 MU69, which is the next target of New Horizons spacecraft. Do you remember this spacecraft, which gave us outstanding images of Pluto and Charon in July 2015? That’s just the same one!
After having left Pluto, New Horizons changed its trajectory to 2014 MU69, which will be reached on January 1st, 2019. 6 months to wait then.
Interestingly, 2014 MU69 was unknown when New Horizons was launched in January 2006. Its primary mission was the binary Pluto-Charon and its satellites, and of course it was worth to extend the mission to another body. But choosing this second target was a difficult task, since the distant Solar System, here the Kuiper Belt, is very difficult to observe, and is pretty sparse. This is why observations programs of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) were dedicated, and 2014 MU69 has been discovered in 2014.
Discovering an object is one thing, determining accurately its motion in view of a rendezvous with a spacecraft is another thing. This is the topic of the study I present today, High-precision orbit fitting and uncertainty analysis of (486958) 2014 MU69, by Simon Porter et al. This study has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The New Horizons spacecraft

New Horizons is the first mission of NASA’s New Frontier program. It was launched in January 2006, and made its closest approach to Pluto in July 2015. Before that, it incidentally encountered the small asteroid (132524) APL at a distance of about 100,000 km in June 2006, and benefited from the gravitational assistance of Jupiter in February 2007.

The asteroid 132524 APL seen by New Horizons. © NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
The asteroid 132524 APL seen by New Horizons. © NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

It carries seven science instruments:

  • the Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), which images the encountered bodies,
  • the Solar Wind At Pluto (SWAP) instrument, which name is very explicit regarding its goal,
  • the Pluto Energetic Particle Spectrometer Science Investigation (PEPSSI), which supplements SWAP for the detection of high-energy particles,
  • Alice, which is an ultraviolet imaging spectrometer,
  • the Ralph telescope, which is a photographic instrument,
  • the Venetia Burney Student Dust Counter (VBSDC) measures dust. This instrument has been built by students of the University of Colorado,
  • and the Radioscience Experiment (REX), which measured the temperature and the atmospheric pressure of Pluto.

As you can see from some of the names of the instrument, Pluto-Charon was definitely the primary goal of New Horizons. Anyway, Pluto is now behind, and New Horizons is en route to 2014 MU69, also nicknamed Ultima Thule.

Ultima Thule

At this time, our knowledge of Ultima Thule is very limited. This body has been discovered in 2014, from a dedicated observation program on the Hubble Space Telescope, to identify potential targets for New Horizons. Finally, 2014 MU69 has been selected, partly for technical reasons, i.e. it is not so difficult to reach from Pluto.

It was discovered in June 2014, and has an apparent magnitude of nearly 27, and an absolute one of 11. We can guess its size from its magnitude, and its diameter should be smaller than 50 km. So, a very small body. A stellar occultation happening in 2017 has revealed that its diameter should be closer to 25-30 km, and its shape may be bilobal, or it could even be a contact binary.

Observations of its dynamics revealed that it is a cold, classical Kuiper Belt object. Its eccentricity and inclination are limited, since they are not excited by any resonance with the giant planets. So, it belongs to a region of the Solar System, which is quiet from a dynamical point of view.

As I previously said, discovering it is not enough if you want a spacecraft to reach it. You must know its motion accurately, and for that you need more data. And Ultima Thule can be observed only with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble Space Telescope data

The authors disposed of 5 observations of 2014 MU69, by the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) of the HST. Even with the HST, imaging 2014 MU69 requires 6 minutes of exposure, i.e. you need to accumulate photons reflected by 2014 MU69 during 6 minutes to have enough signal.

The detection of 2014 MU<sub>69</sub>. © NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team
The detection of 2014 MU<sub>69</sub>. © NASA, ESA, SwRI, JHU/APL, and the New Horizons KBO Search Team

Another difficulty comes from the number of stars in that region of the sky. This is due to the galactic latitude of 2014 MU69, which is close to 0, i.e. close to the Galactic plane. The images have to be treated, to remove their incoming light. This is not just a pixel, but a diffraction spot, which needs to be modeled to be properly removed.

Once you have these data, you can start to determine the orbit of 2014 MU69, i.e. make ephemerides.

From astrometry to orbit

When you catch a body on a 2-dimensional image of the sky, you get two coordinates. Basically, these coordinates translate into a right ascension, and a declination. And to build ephemerides of a body, you need to integrate the equation ruling the orbital motion. This equations is a second-order 3-dimensional ordinary differential equation.

The motion is ruled by the gravitational perturbation of the Sun and the major planets, and for the problem to be solved, you need initial conditions. These are a position and a velocity of 2014 MU69 at a given date, which you derive from your astrometric observations, i.e. the 5 couples (right ascension, declination).

Easy, isn’t it? No, it’s not! Because of the uncertainties on the measurements, your 10 data, i.e. 5 right ascensions and 5 declinations, do not exactly correspond to an initial condition. So, you have to make a fit, i.e. determine the initial condition, which best fits the observations.

There are many potential sources of uncertainties: the accuracy of the positioning of the HST, the accuracy of the coordinates of 2014 MU69 (remember: this is not a pixel, but a diffraction spot), the duration of the exposure… and also the location of the stars surrounding 2014 MU69 in the field of view. To make absolute astrometry, you need to know precisely the location of these stars, and you get their locations from a star catalogue. Currently, the astrometric satellite Gaia is making such a survey, with a never reached accuracy and comprehensiveness. The Gaia Data Release 2 has been released in April 2018, and gives positions and proper motions (i.e. you can now consider that the stars move from date to date) of more than 1 billion stars! The authors had the chance to use that catalogue. This resulted in predictions, which were accurate enough, to predict a stellar occultation, which has been observed from the Earth.

Predicting stellar occultations

When a Solar System body occultates a star, you can indirectly observe it. You observe the star with your telescope, and during a few seconds, the star disappears, and then reappears, because of this object, which light is too faint for you. Multiple observations of a stellar occultation give information on the motion of the object, and on its dimensions. The rings around Chariklo and Haumea have been discovered that way.

For 2014 MU69 (or Ultima Thule), an occultation has been successfully predicted. It has been observed 5 times on 2017 July 17, in Argentina, giving 5 solid-body chords. This permitted us to infer that 2014 MU69 could be bilobal, or even a contact binary.

A stable orbit

And from these astrometric data, the authors propagated the orbit of 2014 MU69 over 100 million years, in considering the uncertainties on the initial positions. The outcomes of the simulations safely state that 2014 MU69 is on a very stable orbit, with a mean semimajor axis of 44.23 astronomical units (39.48 for Pluto), and an orbital eccentricity smaller than 0.04. This results in an orbital period of 294 years, during which the distance to the Sun barely varies.

We are looking forward for the encounter in 6 months!

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.

There was water on Mars

Hi there! Well, we already knew that there has been liquid water on the surface of Mars, a long time ago. Indeed, the space mission Mariner 9 imaged valley networks in 1972. Since then, several missions refined the data. The study I present today, Estimate of the water flow duration in large Martian fluvial systems, by Vincenzo Orofino, Giulia Alemanno, Gaetano Di Achille and Francesco Mancarella, uses the most recent observations to estimate the length and depth of former Martian rivers, and their duration of formation and erosion. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Planetary and Space Science.

Evidences of liquid water in the past

The current atmosphere of Mars is pretty thin, its pressure being on average 0.6% the one of the Earth. Such a small atmospheric pressure prevents the existence of liquid water at the surface. Water could survive only as ice, otherwise would be just vaporized. And ice water has been found, particularly in the polar caps. But if the atmosphere were thicker in the past, then liquid water would have survived… and we know it did.

We owe to Mariner 9 a map of 85% of the Martian surface, which revealed in particular river beds, deltas, and lake basins. The study we discuss today focused on valley networks, which are particularly present in the southern highlands of Mars. These valleys are typically less than 5 km wide, but may extend over thousands of kms, and they reveal former rivers.

Nirgal Vallis seen by Mariner 9. © NASA
Nirgal Vallis seen by Mariner 9. © NASA

The history of these rivers is inseparable from the geological history of Mars.

The geologic history of Mars

We distinguish 3 mains eras in the geological history of Mars: the Noachian, the Hesperian, and the Amazonian.

The Noachian probably extended between 4.6 and 3.7 Gyr ago, i.e. it started when Mars formed. At that time, the atmosphere of Mars was much thicker that it is now, it generated greenhouse effect, and liquid water was stable on the surface. It even probably rained on Mars! During that era, the bombardment in the inner Solar System, including on Mars, was very intense, but anyway less intense than the Late Heavy Bombardment, which happened at the end of the Noachian. Many are tempted to consider it to be the cause of the change of era. Anyway, many terrains of the south hemisphere of Mars, and craters, date from the Noachian. And almost all of the river beds as well.

After the Noachian came the Hesperian, probably between 3.7 and 3.2 Gyr ago. It was a period of intense volcanic activity, during which the bombardment declined, and the atmosphere thinned. Then came the Amazonian, which is still on-going, and which is a much quieter era. The volcanic activity has declined as well.

So, almost all of the valley networks date from the Noachian. Let us now see how they formed.

Use of recent data

We owe to the space missions accurate maps of Mars. From these maps, the authors have studied a limited data set of 63 valley networks, 13 of them with a interior channel, the 50 remaining ones without. The interior channel is the former river bed, while the valley represents the area, which has been sculpted by the river. The absence of interior channel probably means that either they are too narrow to be detectable, or have been eroded.

These valley networks are located on sloppy areas, most of them close to the equator. The authors needed the following information:

  1. area,
  2. eroded volume,
  3. valley slopes,
  4. width and depth of the interior channel.

To get this information, they combined topographic data from the instrument MOLA (for Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter) on board Mars Global Surveyor (1997-2006) with THEMIS (THermal Emission Imaging System, on board Mars Odyssey, still operating). MOLA permits 3-D imagery, with a vertical resolution of 30 cm/pixel (in other words, the accuracy of the altitude) and a horizontal one of 460 m/pixel, while the THEMIS data used by the authors are 2D-data, with a resolution of 100 m /pixel. When the authors judged necessary, they supplemented these data with CTX data (ConTeXt camera, on board Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, still ongoing), with a resolution up to 6 m/pixel.

These information are very useful to estimate the formation time and the erosion rate of the valley network.

Dynamics of formation of a river bed

They estimated these quantities from the volume of sediments, which should have been transported to create the valley networks. The idea is, while water is flowing, assisted by the Martian surface gravity (fortunately, this number is very well known, and is roughly one-third of the gravity on Earth) and by the slope, it transports material. The authors assumed in their calculations that this material was only sediments, i.e. they neglected rock transport, and they did the maths.

Several competing models exist for sediment transport. This is actually difficult to constrain, given the uncertainties on the sediments themselves. Such phenomena also exist on Earth, but the numbers are very different for instance if you are in Iceland or in the Atacama Desert.

It also depends on the intermittence: is the water flow constant? You can say yes to make your life easier, but is it true? On Earth, you have seasonal variations… why not on Mars? A constant water flow means an intermittence of 100%, while no water means 0%.

And keep also in mind that the water flow depends on the atmospheric conditions: is the air wet or pretty arid? We can answer this question for the present atmospheric conditions, but how was it in the Noachian?

No icy Noachian

And this is one result of the present study: there must have been some evaporation in the Noachian, which means that it was not cold and icy. The authors show that such a Noachian would be inconsistent with the valley networks, as we presently observe them.

However, they get large uncertainties on the formation timescales of the valley networks, i.e. between 500 years and almost twice the age of the Solar System. They have anyway median numbers, i.e.

  • 30 kyr for a continuous sediment flow,
  • 500 kyr with an intermittence of 5%,
  • 3 Myr with an intermittence of 1%,
  • 30 Myr with an intermittence of 0.1%.

And from the data, they estimate that the intermittence should be in the range 1%-5%, which corresponds humid (5%) and semiarid/arid environments. This is how they can rule out the cold and icy Noachian.

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.

Evolution of Venus’ crust

Hi there! Of course, you know Venus. This planet is sometimes nicknamed the twin sister of the Earth, but beside its size, it does not look like the Earth. Venus is closer to the Sun than us, and it has a very thick atmosphere, which is essentially composed of carbon dioxide. This atmosphere has a pressure of 93 bar at the surface of the planet, to be compared with 1 bar for the Earth, and the temperature reaches there 470°C. Definitely hostile.

Anyway, I do not speak of the atmosphere today, but of the surface. I present Inferences on the mantle viscosity structure and the post-overturn evolutionary state of Venus, by T. Rolf and collaborators, which has recently been published in Icarus.

The interior of Venus

Given its size, i.e. a diameter of 12,000 km, which is 95% of the one of the Earth, Venus must be differentiated. It has a crust, a mantle, and core, with increasing densities when you go deeper below the surface. We think the crust to be essentially basaltic, while the core must contain heavy elements. Surprisingly, the space missions did not detect any magnetic field, which means that the core may be not solid, or may be not cooling…

The outer part of the mantle should be fluid, which means that a fluid layer separates the core from the mantle. We know very few of the thicknesses and the compositions of these different layers. Actually, these could only be guessed from the measurements we dispose on, which are the gravity and the topography (see just below). Once you know the gravity field of Venus and its topography, you can elaborate interior models, which would be consistent with your data.

Gravity and topography

First, gravity. When a small body, like an artificial satellite, orbits a spherical planetary body, the gravitational perturbation affecting its motion depends only on the distance between the satellite and the planet. Now, if the planet is not spherical, and has mass anomalies, then the perturbation will not only depend on the distance, but also on the direction planet-satellite. You can determine the gravity field from the orbital deviation of your spacecraft.

It is convenient to write the gravity field as a sum of spherical harmonics. The first term (order 0) is a spherical one, then the order 2 (you have no order 1 if the center of your reference frame is the center of mass) represents the triaxiality of the planet, i.e. the planet seen as a triaxial ellipsoid. And the higher order terms will represent anomalies, with increasing resolutions. These resolutions are modeled as spatial periods. Such a representation has usually an efficient convergence, except for highly elongated bodies (see here).

We use such a representation for the topography as well. The difference is that the result is not the gravity field in any direction, but the altitude of the surface for a given point, i.e. a latitude and a longitude. The spacecraft measure the topography with a laser, which echo gives you the distance between the spacecraft and the surface. The altitude is directly deduced from this information.

Topography of Venus. The altitude variations are about 13 km with respect to a reference ellipsoid. © Calvin Hamilton, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Topography of Venus. The altitude variations are about 13 km with respect to a reference ellipsoid. © Calvin Hamilton, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The best representations we dispose on for Venus come from the American spacecraft Magellan, which orbited Venus between 1990 and 1994. These representations go to the order 180.

Modeling the crustal evolution

In this study, the authors simulated possible evolutionary paths for the crust of Venus, and compared their results with the present Venus, i.e. the gravity and topography as we know them.

For that, they simulated the thermochemical evolution of Venus in using a numerical code, StagYY. This is a 3D-code, which models convection in the mantle, i.e. internal motions. This code is based on finite elements, i.e. the interior of Venus is split into small elements. This splitting is made following a so-called Yin-Yang grid, which is appropriate for spherical geometries. This code includes several features like phase transition (i.e. from solid to fluid, and conversely), compositional variations, partial melting and melt migration. Moreover, it is implemented for parallel computing.

In other words, these are huge calculations. The authors started with 10 simulations in which the crust was modeled as a single plate, i.e. a stagnant lid. The simulations differed by the modeling of the viscosity, and by the radiogenic heating rate. This is the heating of Venus by the decay of the radiogenic elements, which was most effective in the early Solar System.

Once these 10 simulations have run, the authors kept the one, which resulted in the closest Venus to the actual one, and introduced episodic overturns in it.

Stagnant-lid vs. overturn

Venus does not present any tectonic activity. Did it have some in the past? This is a question this study tried to answer.

An overturn is a sudden peak in the heat transfer from the core to the crust through the mantle, due to a too strong difference of temperature, i.e. when the mantle gets colder. Such an episodic phenomenon is triggered by a too thick crust, and results in a melting of this crust, in heating it. In other words, it regulates the thickness of the crust.

Overturns should have happened

And here are the results: the best stagnant-lid scenario, called S2 in the study, presents some discrepancy between the simulated present Venus and the observed one. These discrepancies are present in the topography, in the gravity field, and in the age of the surface. The surface is estimated to be between 0.3 and 1 Gyr old, while the best stagnant-lid scenario predicts that the most probable age is 0.25 Gyr… a little too young.

However, episodic overturns give a surface, which is 0.6 Gyr old. Moreover, the gravity and topography are much better fit. The only remaining problem is that this scenario should result in much detections of plumes than actually detected.

As the authors honestly recall, some physical phenomena were not considered, in particular the influence of the dense atmosphere, and intrusive volcanism. Anyway, this study strongly suggests that episodic overturn happened.

Further data will improve our understanding of Venus. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) has pre-selected 3 potential future space missions, including EnVision, i.e. an orbiter around Venus. The final decision is expected in 2021.

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.

Saturn sends us meteorites

Hi there! First I would like to thank you for following me on Facebook. The Planetary Mechanics page has reached 1,000 followers!

OK, now back to business. Did you know that our Earth is intensively bombarded from space? You have recently heard of this Chinese space station, Tiangong-1… in that case, it was man-made stuff. But we are intensively bombarded by natural space material. Most of it is so small that it is destroyed when entering the atmosphere, but sometimes it arrives to us as stones… And in extreme cases, the impactor is so large that its impact may generate an extinction event. The Chicxulub crater, in Mexico, is thought to result from the impact, which aftermath provoked the extinction of the dinosaurs, some 66 Myr ago.

The meteorites I speak about today are the ones, which fall on the Earth every year. This is the opportunity to discuss about Identification of meteorite source regions in the Solar System, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus. In that study, the authors determine the origin of 25 meteorites, from their observed trajectories just before they hit us.

Meteorites bombard the Earth

We estimate that currently 60 tons of cosmic material fall on the Earth every day. This seems huge, but actually most of it arrives to us as dust, since the original object does not survive its entry into the atmosphere. In fact, the larger the meteorite, the less frequent it falls on us. 4-m objects arrive every ~16 months, 10-m ones every ~10 years, and 100-m ones every ~5,200 years. And they arrive somewhere on Earth… do not forget that most of the surface of our planet is water. So, don’t worry.

The contact of such a small object with the atmosphere may generate an airburst, which itself could be detected, in many frequencies. I mean, you may hear it, you may see it (make a wish), it can also disturb the radio emissions. This motivated the existence of several observation programs, dedicated to the detection of meteors.

Observation networks

Programs of observation exist at least since 1959, originally under the impulse of Ondřejov Observatory (Czech Republic). These are usually national programs, e.g.

and there are probably more. These are networks of camera, which systematically record the sky, accumulating data which are then automatically treated to detect meteors. The detection of a meteors from different location permit to determine its trajectory.

Detection of a fireball by FRIPON, in September 2016. © FRIPON
Detection of a fireball by FRIPON, in September 2016. © FRIPON

Identifying the source

As I said, multiple detections, at different locations, of a fireball, permit to derive its trajectory. This trajectory gives in particular the radiant, which is the direction from which the meteorite, or the impactor, seems to come. The authors are also interested in the velocity of the object.

The velocity and the radiant are determined with respect to the Earth. Once they are determined, the authors translated them into heliocentric elements, i.e. they determined the pre-impact trajectory of the object with respect to the Sun. And this makes sense, since Solar System objects orbit the Sun! This trajectory is made of orbital elements, i.e. semimajor axis, eccentricity, inclination, and the uncertainties associated. Don’t forget that the observations have an accuracy, which you must consider when you use the data. The magnitude of the fireball tells us something on the size of the impactor as well.

From these data, the authors wondered from where the object should come from.

7 candidates as reservoirs of meteorites

The authors identified 7 possible sources for these impactors. These regions are the densest parts of the Main Asteroid Belt.
These are:

  1. the Hungaria family. These asteroids have a semimajor axis between 1.78 and 2 astronomical units, and an inclination between 16° and 34° with respect to the ecliptic, i.e. the orbit of the Earth,
  2. the ν6 resonance: these are bodies, which eccentricity raise because excited by Saturn. They orbit at a location, where they are sensitive to the precessional motion of the pericentre of Saturn. The raise of their eccentricity make these bodies unstable, and good candidates for Earth-crossers. Their semimajor axis is slightly smaller than 2 AU.
  3. the Phocaea family: this is a collisional family of stony asteroids. Their semimajor axes lie between 2.25 and 2.5 AU, their eccentricities are larger than 0.1, and their inclinations are between 18° and 32°. They are known to be a source of Mars-crossers.
  4. the 3:1 MMR (mean-motion resonance with Jupiter): these bodies perform exactly 3 orbits around the Sun while Jupiter makes one. They lie at 2.5 AU. The perturbation by Jupiter tends to empty this zone, which is called a Kirkwood gap.
  5. the 5:2 MMR, at 2.82 AU. This is another Kirkwood gap.
  6. the 2:1 MMR, at 3.27 AU, also known as Hecuba gap,
  7. the Jupiter Family Comets. These are comets, which orbital periods around the Sun are shorter than 20 years, and which inclinations are smaller than 30° with respect to the ecliptic. They are likely to be significantly perturbed by Jupiter.

For each of the 25 referenced meteorites, the authors computed the probability of each of these regions to be the source, in considering the orbital elements (semimajor axis, eccentricity, and inclination) and the magnitude of the object. Indeed, the magnitude is correlated with the size, which is itself correlated with the material constituting it. The reason is that these Earth-crossers orbit the Sun on eccentric orbits, and at their pericentre, i.e. the closest approach to the Sun, they experience tides, which threaten their very existence. In other words, they might be disrupted. Particularly, a large body made of weak material cannot survive.

And now, the results!

Saturn send meteorites to the Earth!

The authors find that the most probable source for the meteorites is the ν6 secular resonance, i.e. with Saturn. In other words, Saturn sends meteorites to the Earth! Beside this, the Hungaria family and the 3:1 mean-motion resonance with Jupiter are probable sources as well. On the contrary, you can forget the Phocaea family and the 2:1 MMR as possible sources.
It appears that the inner belt is more likely to be the source of meteorites than the outer one. Actually, the outer belt mostly contains carbonaceous asteroids, which produce weak meteoroids.

The authors honestly recall that previous studies found similar results. Theirs also contains an analysis of the influence of the uncertainty on the trajectories, and of the impact velocity with the Earth. This influence appears to be pretty marginal.

Anyway, the future will benefit from more data, i.e. more detections and trajectory recoveries. So, additional results are to be expected, just be patient!

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here, on the website of Icarus. This study is in open access, which means that the authors paid extra fees to make the study available to us. Many thanks to them!
  • You can visit here the website of Mikael Granvik, the first author of the study,
  • and the one of the second author, Peter Brown.

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.