Weighing the Kuiper Belt

Hi there! Today, we are back to the Solar System, and more especially the Kuiper Belt. You know, all these small bodies, which orbit beyond Neptune. Instead of speaking of specific cases, like Pluto, Haumea or Sedna, we will see the Kuiper Belt as a whole.
The study I present, Mass of the Kuiper Belt, by E.V. Pitjeva and N.P. Pitjev, constrains its total mass with planetary ephemerides. This study has been recently published in Celestial Mechanics and Dynamical Astronomy.

The Kuiper Belt

I have presented the Kuiper Belt many times. These are objects, orbiting beyond the orbit of Neptune. This zone is named after the Dutch-American astronomer Gerard Kuiper, who hypothesized that it could have been a reservoir of comets, even if he thought that it would be almost clear. At that time, the only known Kepler Belt Object was Pluto. Now, more than 2,000 of them are known, and many more are probably to be discovered.
Most of these objects orbit between 30 and 50 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun.

This study wants to constrain the total mass of the Kuiper Belt, from the motion of the planets. For that, the authors built and used planetary ephemerides.

Planetary ephemerides

Planetary ephemerides give the location of the Solar System objects, especially the planets, at given dates. They have been of strategical importance during centuries for celestial navigation. Now, we still need them, for instance to identify potentially hazardous objects, to guide spacecraft, to detect new objects,…

I can cite 3 institutions, which provide ephemerides:

  • NASA’s JPL,
  • IMCCE, Paris Observatory, France,
  • Institute of Applied Astronomy, Russian Academy of Sciences.

JPL stands for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It is located near Pasadena, CA, and is associated with the Californian Institute of Technology (CalTech). As part of NASA, it is associated with the American spacecraft.
The IMCCE, for Institute of Celestial Mechanics, is responsible for the French ephemerides. It has been founded in 1795 as the Bureau des Longitudes, in a context of rivalry between France and England. Its goal was then to assist France, to regain control of the seas.
And the Institute of Applied Astronomy, in Russia, is the place where this study has been conducted.

These 3 institutions provide their own ephemerides, i.e. solutions for the orbital motion of the planets, their satellites, the asteroids,… Now, let us see how to include the Kuiper Belt.

The Kuiper Belt as a ring

The orbital motion of planetary bodies come from the numerical integration of the gravitational equations, in which each body is perturbed by all the other ones… this makes many of them. So many that a common computer cannot handle that, when it comes to 2,000 of them. Moreover, there are probably many more Kuiper Belt Objects, which are not discovered yet, but which perturb the motion of the planets…

The authors by-passed this problem in modeling the Kuiper Belt as a ring. Not the whole Kuiper Belt actually. The 31 most massive of these objects are modeled as point masses, ans the remaining ones are embedded into a fictitious rotating ring, which mass perturbs the planets.

If you know the perturbation, you know the mass… Easy, isn’t it? Well, not that easy, actually…

As many data as possible

The authors maintain their ephemerides since many years, and each new version is enriched with new data. The current version, EPM2017, uses about 800,000 positional observations of planets and spacecraft, ranging from 1913 to 2015. Many of the observations of planets are Earth-based astrometric observations, while spacecraft observations include MESSENGER (mission to Mercury), Venus Express (to Venus), Cassini (to Saturn), and the Martian missions Viking-1 & 2, Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and Mars Express.

Very small objects like spacecraft are very sensitive to planetary perturbations, this is why their navigation data may be invaluable.

Observed and fitted parameters

Making ephemerides consists in fitting a dynamical model to data, i.e. observed positions. The dynamical model is mainly composed of the gravitational interactions between the planetary bodies, with some relativistic corrections (Einstein-Infeld-Hoffmann equations). These interactions use the masses of the objects as parameters.

When you want to fit the model to the data, you fit the initial conditions, i.e. the location of the objects at the beginning of the simulation, and some of the parameters. Why only some of them? It depends on how well you know them.

For instance, in this case, the mass of (1)Ceres is assumed to be accurately known, thanks to the Dawn mission (just finished, by the way). This means that fitting this mass would be counterproductive.

So, the authors have to make critical choices between what they fit and what they don’t, and also how they ponder the observations between each other.

A light Kuiper Belt

From formation models of the Solar System, the initial Kuiper Belt should be as massive as ten times our Earth. However,
fitting the ephemerides gives much smaller numbers. You can find below the outcomes of the previous studies and this last one, by the same team.

Year Kuiper Belt mass (in Earth mass)
2010 0.0258
2013 0.0263
2014 0.0197
2017 0.0228 ± 0.0046
2018 0.0197 ± 0.0035

As you can see

  • the current Kuiper Belt is by far much lighter than the original one. This means that this region of the Solar System has probably been depleted by the gravitational action of the main planets, only few objects remaining,
  • the numbers do not converge very fast, but they converge. In particular, each new measurement is consistent with the previous one, and the uncertainty tends to shrink. Slowly, but it shrinks.

This number of 0.02 Earth mass makes the Kuiper Belt about 2 orders of magnitudes (i.e. between 10 and 1,000) heavier than the Asteroid Main Belt, but some 3 orders of magnitude lighter than the proposed Planet Nine.

The Planet Nine would have a limited influence

You remember the Planet Nine? It is a yet undiscovered body, which is supposed to exist anyway. It should orbit far behind the orbit of Neptune, should be as massive as 10 Earth masses, and would be responsible for the clustering of the pericentres of the Trans-Neptunian Objects (the Kuiper Belt), and for the obliquity of the Sun.

In this study, the authors benefited from the very accurate navigation data of the space mission Cassini, which orbited Saturn until September 2017. And for Cassini, the Kuiper Belt has a much stronger influence than the hypothetical Planet Nine. This makes me think that the author believe that using such ephemerides is not a good strategy for constraining the Planet Nine.

Actually, the planetologists looking for the Planet Nine focus on the individual trajectories of the Kuiper Belt Objects, because these are the most sensitive to it.

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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