Meteor above Mt Humphrey, AZ - August, 13th 2013 © Robb Hannawacker

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.

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