Artist's concept of a Kuiper Belt around the distant star Vega. Credit: NASA/JPL.

The Solar System is a mess: Using Big Data to clear it up

Hi there! When you look at our Solar System, you wonder how it came to be that way. I mean, it formed from a nebula, in which grain accreted to create the Sun, the planets,… and all these small bodies. Most of them have disappeared since the origin, they were either ejected, or accreted on a planet, or on the Sun… anyway still many of them remain. You have the Asteroid Main Belt, the Centaurs, the Kuiper Belt, the Oort cloud, the comets… Several studies have tried to determine connections between them, i.e. where does this comet come from? Was it originally a Centaur, a Kuiper Belt Object, something else? And how did it change its orbit? A close approach with a giant planet, maybe?
And to address this question, you simulate the trajectories… which is not straightforward to do. It is pretty classical to simulate a trajectory from given initial conditions, but to answer such a question, you need more.
You need more because you do not know how reliable are your initial conditions. Your comet was there that day… very well. How sure are you of that? You observe a position and a velocity, fine, but you have uncertainties on your measurements, don’t you?
Yes, you have. So, you simulate the trajectories of many comets, which initial conditions are consistent with your observations. That’s better. And you hope that the outcome of the trajectories (trajectories simulated backward, if you want to know the origin) will be pretty much the same, since the initial conditions are very close to each other…
But they are not! This is what we call sensitivity to the initial conditions. This often means chaos, but I do not want to detail this specific notion. But basically, when a comet swings by a giant planet, its trajectory is dramatically deviated. And the deviation is highly sensitive to the location of the comet. So sensitive that at some point, you lose the information given by your initial conditions. C’est la vie.
As a result, there are in the literature many studies presenting their simulations, and which conclusions are sometimes inconsistent with each other.
The study we discuss today, It’s Complicated: A Big Data Approach to Exploring Planetesimal Evolution in the Presence of Jovian Planets, by Kevin R. Grazier, Julie C. Castillo-Rogez, and Jonathan Horner, suggests another approach to clear up this mess. It considers that all of these possible trajectories constitute a reservoir of Big Data. This study has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

Architecture of the Solar System

You know the 8 planets of our Solar System, from the closest to the outermost one:

  • Mercury,
  • Venus,
  • Earth,
  • Mars,
  • Jupiter,
  • Saturn,
  • Uranus,
  • Neptune.

And these planets are accompanied by many small bodies, which constitute

  • the Near-Earth Asteroids, which orbit among the 4 terrestrial planets (from Mercury to Mars),
  • the Main Belt Asteroids, which orbit between Mars and Jupiter,
  • the Centaurs, which orbit between Jupiter and Neptune,
  • the Kuiper Belt, which extends between 30 and 50 AU (astronomical units) from the Sun. So, its inner limit is the orbit of Neptune,
  • the scattered disc, which extends to 150 AU from the Sun. These objects are highly inclined. Eris is the largest known of them.
  • the detached objects, like Sedna. This population is very poorly known, and we do not even know if it is truly a population, or just some objects,
  • the hypothetical Oort cloud, which could be as far as one light-year, or 50,000 AU.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. For instance, I did not mention the comets, which could originate from any of those populations of small objects.

In this study, the authors limit themselves to the orbit of Neptune. They consider 3 populations of objects between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn, between Saturn and Uranus, and between Uranus and Neptune. And the question is: how do these populations evolve, to the current state? For that, planetary encounters appear to be of crucial importance.

Planetary encounters

Imagine a small body flying by Jupiter. It approaches Jupiter so closely that it enters its sphere of influence, in which the gravity of Jupter dominates the one of the Sun. Virtually, the object orbits Jupiter, but usually this orbit cannot be stable, since the approach is too fast. Locally, its orbit around Jupiter is hyperbolic, and the object does not stay there. Jupiter ejects it, and you do not know where, because the direction of the ejection is highly sensitive to the velocity of the object during its approach. It also depends on the mass of Jupiter, but this mass is very well known. Sometimes, the action of Jupiter is so strong that it fragments the object, as it did for the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, in July 1994. And you can have this kind of phenomenon for any of the giant planets of the Solar System.

This is how planetary encounters could move, disperse, eject,… entire populations in the Solar System.

The Big Data approach

With so many objects (the authors considered 3 ensembles of 10,000 test particles, the ensembles being the 3 zones between two consecutive giant planets) and so many potential planetary encounters (the trajectories were simulated over 100 Myr), you generate a database of planetary encounters… how to deal with that? This is where the Big Data approach enters the game.

The authors performed it into two stages. The first one consisted to determine close encounter statistics and correlations, for instance with changes of semimajor axis, i.e. how a planetary encounter displaces an object in the Solar System. And the second stage aimed at reconstituting the path of the particles.

And now, the results.

Random walk from one belt to another

It appears that the particles could easily move from one belt to another. Eventually, they can be ejected. As the authors say, the classification of a particle into a population or another is ephemeral. It depends on when you observe it. In other words, a small object you observe in the Solar System could have been formed almost anywhere else. Even in situ. Now let us talk about specific examples.

The origin of Ceres

For instance, Ceres. You know, this is the largest of the Main Belt Asteroids, and the first to have been discovered, in 1801. It has recently been the target of the mission Dawn, which completed in October 2018.

Ceres seen by Dawn. © NASA
Ceres seen by Dawn. © NASA

Ceres is rich in volatiles like ammonia and carbon dioxides, as are other asteroids like Hygeia. Hygeia is itself a large Main Belt Asteroid. Knowing the origin of Ceres could give you the origin of these volatiles… but they could have been partly accreted after the migration… You see, it is difficult to be 100% sure.

Ceres could have formed in situ, i.e. between Mars and Jupiter, but this study shows that it could have originated from much further in the Solar System, and migrated inward.

The origin of trapped satellites

Most of the main satellites of the giant planets are thought to have been formed with the planet, in the protoplanetary nebula.
But in some cases, you have satellites, which orbit far from the parent planet, on an irregular orbit, i.e. a significantly inclined and eccentric one. In such a case, the body has probably not been formed in situ, but has been trapped by the planet. Among them are Saturn’s Phoebe and Neptune’s Triton, which are large satellite. I have discussed the case of Triton here. The trapping of Triton probably ejected mid-sized satellites of Neptune, which are now lost.

Phoebe seen by <i>Cassini</i> in August 2017 © NASA/ESA/JPL/SSI
Phoebe seen by Cassini in August 2017 © NASA/ESA/JPL/SSI
Mosaic of Triton taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. © NASA
Mosaic of Triton taken by Voyager 2 in 1989. © NASA

Phoebe and Triton entered the sphere of influence of their parent planet, but did not leave it. And where did they come from?

It seems probable that Triton was a Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) before. In that part of the Solar System, the velocities are pretty low, which facilitate the captures. However, several scenarios are possible for Phoebe. The study show that it could have originated from an inner or from an outer orbit, and have jumped to Saturn from close encounters with Jupiter / Uranus / Neptune.

Something frustrating with such a study, which goes back to the origins, is that you lose some information. As a consequence, you can only conclude by “it is possible that”, but you cannot be certain. You have to admit it.

A way to secure some probabilities is to cross the dynamics with the physical properties, i.e. if you see that element on that body, and if that element is thought to have formed there, then you can infer something on the body, and the authors discuss these possibilities as well. But once more, you cannot be 100% sure. How do you know that this element has been formed there? Well, from the dynamics… which is chaotic… And when you see an element at the surface of a planetary body, does it mean that it is rich in it, or just coated by it, which means it could have accreted after the migration?

You see, you cannot be certain…

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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