Ceres and Vesta seen by Dawn. © NASA

Rotational stability of Ceres and Vesta

Hi there! The question we address today is: how stable are the rotations of Ceres and Vesta? Do you remember these two guys? These are the largest two asteroids in the Main Belt, and the spacecraft Dawn visited them recently. It gave us invaluable information, like the maps of these bodies, their shapes, their gravity fields, their rotational states…
The study I present you today, Long-term orbital and rotational motions of Ceres and Vesta, by T. Vaillant, J. Laskar, N. Rambaux, and M. Gastineau, wonders how permanent the observed rotational state is. This French study has recently been accepted for publication by Astronomy & Astrophysics.

Ceres and Vesta

I already told you about these two bodies. (1)Ceres (“(1)” because it was the first asteroid to be discovered) is known since January 1801. It has been discovered by the Italian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi at Palermo Astronomical Observatory. The spacecraft Dawn orbits it since April 2015, but is now inoperative since November 1st, 2018. We see Ceres as a body with a rocky core and an icy mantle, possibly with an internal ocean.

Before visiting Ceres, Dawn orbited Vesta, between July 2011 and September 2012. (4)Vesta has been discovered 6 years after Ceres, in 1807, by the German astronomer Heinrich Olbers. This is a differentiated body, probably made of a metallic core, a rocky mantle, and a crust. It has been heavily bombarded, showing in particular two large craters, Rheasilvia and Veneneia. Vesta is the source of the HED (Howardite Eucrite Diogenite) meteorites, which study is an invaluable source of information on Vesta (see here).

The surface of Vesta (detail). © NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA
The surface of Vesta (detail). © NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

You can find below some numbers regarding Ceres and Vesta.

(1) Ceres (4) Vesta
Discovery 1801 1807
Semimajor axis 2.77 AU 2.36 AU
Eccentricity 0.116 0.099
Inclination 9.65° 6.39°
Orbital period 4.604 yr 3.629 yr
Spin period 9.07 h 5.34 h
Obliquity 4.00° 27.47°
Shape (965.2 × 961.2 × 891.2) km (572.6 × 557.2 × 446.4) km
Density 2.08 g/cm3 3.47 g/cm3

As you can see, Vesta is the closest one. It is also the most elongated of these bodies, i.e. you definitely cannot consider it as spherical. Both have significant orbital eccentricities, which means significant variations of the distance to the Sun (this will be important, wait a little). You can also see that these are fast rotators, i.e. they spin in a few hours, while their revolution periods around the Sun are of the order of 4 years. By the way, Vesta rotates twice faster than Ceres. Such numbers are pretty classical for asteroids.
You can also notice that Vesta is denser than Ceres, which is consistent with a metallic core.
Finally, the obliquities. The obliquity is the angle between the angular momentum (somehow the rotation axis… this is not exactly the same, but not too far) and the normal to the Sun. In other words, a null obliquity means that the body rotates along its orbit. An obliquity of 90° means that the body rolls on its orbit. An obliquity of 180° means that the body rotates along its orbit… but its rotation is retrograde (while it is prograde with a null obliquity).
Here, you can see that the obliquity of Ceres is close to 0, while the one of Vesta is 27°, which is significant. It is actually close to the obliquity of the Earth, this induces yearly variations of the insolation, and the seasons. On bodies like Ceres and Vesta, the obliquity would affect the survival of ice in deep craters, i.e. if the obliquity and the size of the crater prevents the Sun to illuminate it, then it would survive as ice.
From these data, the authors simulated the rotational motion of Ceres and Vesta.

Simulating their rotation

Simulating the rotation consists in predicting the time variations of the angles, which represent the rotational state of the bodies. For that, you must start from the initial conditions (what is the current rotational state?), and the physical equations, which rule the rotational motion.
For rigid bodies, rotation is essentially ruled by gravity. The gravitational perturbation of the Sun (mostly) and the planets affects the rotation. You quantify this perturbation with the masses of the perturbers, and the distances between your bodies (Ceres and Vesta), and these perturbers. To make things simple, just take Ceres and the Sun. You know the Solar perturbation on Ceres from the mass of the Sun, and the orbit of Ceres around it. This is where the eccentricity intervenes. Once you have the perturbation, you also need to determine the response of Ceres, and you have it from its shape. Since Vesta is more triaxial than Ceres, then its sensitivity to a gravitational should be stronger. It mostly is, but you may have some resonances (see later), which would enhance the rotational response.

The rotational stability

The question of the rotational stability is: you know, the numbers I gave you on the rotation… how much would they vary over the ages? This is an interesting question, if you want to know the variations of temperature on the surface. Would the ice survive? Would the surface melt? Would that create an atmosphere? For how long? Etc.
For instance, the same team showed that the obliquity of the Earth is very stable, and we owe it to our Moon, which stabilized the rotation axis of the Earth. This is probably a condition for the habitability of a telluric planet.

Let us go back to Ceres and Vesta. The authors focused on the obliquity, not on the spin period. In fact, they considered that the body rotated so fast, that the spin period would not have any significant effect. This permitted them to average the equations over the spin period, and resulted in a rotational dynamics, which moves much slower. And this allows to simulate it over a much longer time span.

A symplectic integrator for a long-term study

A numerical integration of the equations of the rotational motion, even averaged over the fast angle (I mean, the rotation period), may suffer from numerical problems over time. If you propagate the dynamics over millions of years, then the resulting dynamics may diverge significantly from the real one, because of an accumulation of numerical errors all along the process of propagation.

For that, use symplectic integrators. These are numerical schemes, which preserve the global energy of the dynamics, if you have no dissipation of course. But there are many problems of planetary dynamics, which permit you to neglect the dissipation.

When you can neglect the dissipation, your system is conservative. In that case, you can use the mathematical properties of the Hamiltonian systems, which preserve the total energy. That way, your solution does not diverge.

But how to determine whether your dynamics is stable or not? There are many tools for that (Lyapunov exponents, alignment indexes…) Here, the authors determined the diffusion of the fundamental frequencies of the system.

Diffusion of the fundamental frequencies

Imagine you orbit around the Sun, at a given period… actually the period depends on your semimajor axis, so, if it remains constant, then the orbital period remains constant. If your orbit is also disturbed by another perturber, you will see periodic variations in your orbital elements, which correspond to the period of the perturber. Very well. So, analyzing the frequencies which are present in your motion should give you constant numbers…

But what happens if your bodies drift? Then your frequencies will drift as well. In detecting these variations, which result from the so-called diffusion of the fundamental frequencies of the system, you detect some chaos in the system. I took the example of the orbital dynamics, but the same works for the rotation. For instance, the orbital frequencies appear in the time evolution of the rotational variables, since the orbit affects the rotation. But you also have proper frequencies of the rotational motion, for instance the period at which the angular momentum precesses around the normale to the orbit, and this period may drift as well…

The diffusion of the fundamental frequencies is one indicator of the stability. The authors also checked the variations of the obliquity of Ceres and Vesta, along their trajectories. They simulated the motion over 40 Myr (million years), in considering different possible numbers for the interior, and different initial obliquities.

Let us see now the results.

Obliquity variations up to 20 degrees

If you consider different possibilities, i.e. we do not know how these bodies were 40 Myr ago, then we see that it is theoretically possible for them to have been highly influenced by a resonance. This means that one fundamental frequency of the rotation would have been commensurable with periodic contributions of the orbital motion, and this would have resulted in a high response of the obliquity. For the present trajectories, the author estimate that the obliquity of Ceres could have varied between 2 and 20° these last 20 Myr, and the obliquity of Vesta between 21 and 45°.

To be honest, this is only a part of a huge study, which also investigates the stability of the orbital motions of Ceres and Vesta. Actually, these bodies are on chaotic orbits. This does not mean that they will be ejected one day, but that their orbits becomes uncertain, or inaccurate, after some tens of Myr.

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here. The authors made it also freely available on arXiv, many thanks to them for sharing! And now the authors
  • Unfortunately I did not find any webpage for the first author Timothée Vaillant. You can find here the one of Jacques Laskar, second author of the study,
  • and the IAU page of Mickaël Gastineau.

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