All posts by Terryl Coron

9 interstellar asteroids?

Hi there! You may have recently heard of 1I/’Oumuamua, initially known as C/2017 U1, then A/2017 U1 (see here), where C stands for comet, A for asteroid, and I for interstellar object. This small body visited us last fall on a hyperbolic orbit, i.e. it came very fast from very far away, flew us by, and then left… and we shall never see it again. ‘Oumuamua has probably been formed in another planetary system, and its visit has motivated numerous studies. Some observed it to determine its shape, its composition, its rotation… and some conducted theoretical studies to understand its origin, its orbit… The study I present you today, Where the Solar system meets the solar neighbourhood: patterns in the distribution of radiants of observed hyperbolic minor bodies, by Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, and Sverre J. Aarseth, is a theoretical one, but with a broader scope. This study examines the orbits of 339 objects on hyperbolic orbits, to try to determine their origin, in particular which of them might be true interstellar interlopers. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

‘Oumuamua

I detail the discovery of ‘Oumuamua there. Since that post, we know that ‘Oumuamua is a red dark object, probably dense. It is tumbling, i.e. does not rotate around a single rotation axis, in about 8 hours. The uncertainties on the rotation period are pretty important, because of this tumbling motion. Something really unexpected is huge variations of brightness, which should reveal either a cigar-shaped object, or an object with extreme variations of albedo, i.e. bright regions alternating with dark ones… but that would be inconsistent with the spectroscopy, revealing a reddish object. This is why the dimensions of ‘Oumuamua are estimated to be 230 × 35 × 35 meters.

Artist's impression of 'Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser

One wonders where ‘Oumuamua comes from. An extrapolation of its orbit shows that it comes from the current direction of the star Vega, in constellation Lyra… but when it was there, the star was not there, since it moved… We cannot actually determine around which star, and when, ‘Oumuamua has been formed.

Anyway, it was a breakthrough discovery, as the first certain interstellar object, with an eccentricity of 1.2. But other bodies have eccentricities larger than 1, which make them unstable in the Solar System, i.e. gravitationally unbound to the Sun… Could some of them be interstellar interlopers? This is the question addressed by the study. If you want to understand what I mean by eccentricity, hyperbolic orbit… just read the next section.

Hyperbolic orbits

The simplest orbit you can find is a circular one: the Sun is at the center, and the planetary object moves on a circle around the Sun. In such a case, the eccentricity of the orbit is 0. Now, if you get a little more eccentric, the trajectory becomes elliptical, and you will have periodic variations of the distance between the Sun and the object. And the Sun will not be at the center of the trajectory anymore, but at a focus. The eccentricity of the Earth is 0.017, which induces a closest distance of 147 millions km, and a largest one of 152 millions km… these variations are pretty limited. However, Halley’s comet has an eccentricity of 0.97. And if you exceed 1, then the trajectory will not be an ellipse anymore, but a branch of hyperbola. In such a case, the object can just make a fly-by of the Sun, before going back to the interstellar space.

Wait, it is a little more complicated than that. In the last paragraph, I assumed that the eccentricity, and more generally the orbital elements, were constant. This is true if you have only the Sun and your object (2-body, or Kepler, problem). But you have the gravitational perturbations of planets, stars,… and the consequence is that these orbital elements vary with time. You so may have a hyperbolic orbit becoming elliptical, in which case an interstellar interloper gets trapped, or conversely a Solar System object might be ejected, its eccentricity getting larger than 1.

The authors listed three known mechanisms, likely to eject a Solar System object:

  1. Close encounter with a planet,
  2. Secular interaction with the Galactic disk (in other words, long term effects due to the cumulative interactions with the stars constituting our Milky Way),
  3. Close encounter with a star.

339 hyperbolic objects

The authors identified 339 objects, which had an eccentricity larger than 1 on 2018 January 18. The objects were identified thanks to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, and the Minor Planet Center database. The former is due to NASA, and the latter to the International Astronomical Union.

Once the authors got their inputs, they numerically integrated their orbits backward, over 100 kyr. These integrations were made thanks to a dedicated N-body code, powerful and optimized for long-term integration. Such algorithm is far from trivial. It consists in numerically integrating the equations of the motion of all of these 339 objects, perturbed by the Sun, the eight planets, the system Pluto-Charon, and the largest asteroids, in paying attention to the numerical errors at each iteration. This step is critical, to guarantee the validity of the results.

Some perturbed by another star

And here is the result: the authors have found that some of these objects had an elliptical orbit 100 kyr ago, meaning that they probably formed around the Sun, and are on the way to be expelled. The authors also computed the radiants of the hyperbolic objects, i.e. the direction from where they came, and they found an anisotropic distribution, i.e. there are preferred directions. Such a result has been obtained in comparing the resulting radiants from the ones given by a random process, and the distance between these 2 results is estimated to be statistically significant enough to conclude an anisotropic distribution. So, this result in not based on a pattern detected by the human eye, but on statistical calculations.

In particular, the authors noted an excess of radiants in the direction of the binary star WISE J072003.20-084651.2, also known as Scholz’s star, which is currently considered as the star having had the last closest approach to our Solar System, some 70 kilo years ago. In other words, the objects having a radiant in that direction are probably Solar System objects, and more precisely Oort cloud objects, which are being expelled because of the gravitational kick given by that star.

8 candidate interlopers

So, there is a preferred direction for the radiants, but ‘Oumuamua, which is so eccentric that it is the certain interstellar object, is an outlier in this radiant distribution, i.e. its radiant is not in the direction of Scholz’s star, and so cannot be associated with this process. Moreover, its asymptotical velocity, i.e. when far enough from the Sun, is too large to be bound to the Sun. And this happens for 8 other objects, which the authors identify as candidate interstellar interlopers. These 8 objects are

  • C/1853 RA (Brunhs),
  • C/1997 P2 (Spacewatch),
  • C/1999 U2 (SOHO),
  • C/2002 A3 (LINEAR),
  • C/2008 J4 (McNaught),
  • C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes),
  • C/2012 S1 (ISON),
  • C/2017 D3 (ATLAS).

Do we know just one, or 9 interstellar objects? Or between 1 and 9? Or more than 9? This is actually an important question, because that would constrain the number of detections to be expected in the future, and have implications for planetary formation in our Galaxy. And if these objects are interstellar ones, then we should try to investigate their physical properties (pretty difficult since they are very small and escaping, but we did it for ‘Oumuamua… maybe too late for the 8 other guys).

Anyway, more will be known in the years to come. More visitors from other systems will probably be discovered, and we will also know more on the motion of the stars passing by, thanks to the astrometric satellite Gaia. Stay tuned!

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.

The activity of Chiron

Hi there! You may have heard of Chiron, which was he first Centaur discovered, in 1977. This minor planet may have rings, and seems to present some cometary activity, which cause needs to be discussed. This is the topic of the present study, i.e. Activity of (2060) Chiron possibly caused by impacts?, by Stefan Cikota, Estela Fernández-Valenzuela, Jose Luis Ortiz, Nicolás Morales, René Duffard, Jesus Aceituno, Aleksandar Cikota and Pablo Santos-Sanz. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Chiron’s facts

Chiron was the first discovered Centaur, i.e. the first asteroid / small planet, which orbits between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. It was discovered in 1977, in the sense that it was identified in 1977. But reexamination of past photographic plates show that it has in fact been observed since 1895. And from the reanalysis of the pre-discovery observations, it was easy to determine an orbit.

Discovery 1977
First observation 1895
Apparent magnitude 19
Absolute magnitude 6
Diameter 220 km
Semimajor axis 13.648 AU
Eccentricity 0.3823
Inclination 6.9497°
Orbital period 50.42 yr
Rotation 5.918 h

The orbital period of Chiron is a slightly longer than 50 years, which means that we dispose of astrometric observations over more than 2 periods. This orbit is highly eccentric, which results in large variations of the distance to the Sun, i.e. between 8.43 AU (astronomical units) at perihelion, and 18.86 AU at aphelion.

A spectral analysis of Chiron reveals a C-type, i.e. a carbonaceous, object. Moreover, it shows large variations of brightness, which are considered to be partly due to cometary activity, and partly due to rings. This cometary activity makes that Chiron, officially the asteroid (2060)Chiron, can also be called the comet 95P/Chiron.

Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura
Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura

The presence of rings around Chiron is not unanimously accepted in the scientific community. Unexpected stellar occultations by something orbiting close to Chiron could be interpreted either as cometary jets, or as rings. But the large variations of brightness and the discoveries of rings around Chariklo and Haumea speak for the presence of rings. The discovery of rings around Chariklo was very surprising, and showed that it is possible. The discovery around Haumea has shown that rings around such bodies were not exceptional. So, why not Chiron? In this study, the authors clearly state that they believe in the presence of rings, and they use it to study the brightness of Chiron. These rings would have a radius of 324 ± 10 km, which is inside the estimated Roche limit of Chiron, i.e. the particles constituting the rings could not accrete into a larger body.

But the central point is the cometary activity, i.e. evidence for cometary jets is reported.

Triggering a cometary activity

Classical comets behave this way: these are dirty snowballs, i.e. made of ice, dust, and some other elements. When approaching the Sun, the comet gets so warm that the ice is sublimated. But a Centaur with cometary activity is different, since it does not get closer to the Sun. Moreover, Chiron is essentially carbonaceous. So, another cause has to be found. And in such a case, it is often tempting to invoke impacts.

A problem is that impacts are not that frequent in that region of the Solar System. First because the gravitational action of the Sun tends to focus the orbits of the potential impactors, i.e. they will be more inclined to get closer to the Sun, and second because, the more distant from the Sun you are, the emptier the space appears, this is just a geometrical effect.
The consequences of these effects is that a collision of a 1km-radius comet is expected on a body like Chiron every 60 Gyr… while the age of the Solar System is 4.5 Gyr… quite unlikely.

Photometric observations

Anyway, Chiron is known to have some cometary activity, and the author tracked it from Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA) in Almeria, Spain, during 3 observation campaigns, between 2014 and 2016. The first campaign was primarily devoted to the study of the rotation of Chiron, and consisted of 3 runs in 2014, using the 3.5 and the 1.23 m telescopes. The second campaign was conducted in September 2015 on the 2.2 m telescope, with the CAFOS instrument (Calar Alto Faint Object Spectrograph), and looked for rotation, absolute magnitude, and cometary activity. The third campaign took place on 2016, September 2, to get a better constraint on Chiron’s absolute magnitude, once again with CAFOS.

The authors were particularly interested in the photometry, since cometary jets translate into variations of brightness. For that, they had to correct the variations due to observational constraints, and to the orientation of Chiron.

The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal
The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal

Observational constraints are likely to give artificial variations of photometry, since

  • the height of Chiron on the horizon varies, which means that the thickness of the atmosphere varies,
  • the wind might result in unstable images (seeing),
  • the detectors are different, even on the same instrument,etc.

To try to make things as proper as possible, the authors corrected the images from flat fielding, i.e. from the variations of the response of the CCD chip, and they observed a large enough field (at least 16 arcmin), to have the same stars as photometric references.

Regarding the orientation of Chiron, variations of brightness can reveal:

  • the rotation of Chiron, which would present different surface elements to the observer,
  • the orientation of the rings.

These two effects were modeled, to be removed from the photometric measurements. And the result is…

Impacts from the rings

The authors do observe a small cometary activity on Chiron, which is pretty faint. It has actually been stronger in the past, a measurement in 1973 showed a peak with respect to another measurement in 1970, and since then the coma is monotonously decreasing. The authors interpret that as a possible small impact having occurred between 1970 and 1973, the associated coma tail having almost disappeared. This activity appears to be supplemented by a continuous micro-activity, which could be due to impacts by small particles falling from the rings.

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.

Ice on Mercury

Hi there! You know Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System. It has recently been explored during 4 years by the American spacecraft MESSENGER, which gave us invaluable data on its surface, its magnetic field, its interior…
Today I present you a study on the ice on Mercury. It is entitled Constraining the thickness of polar ice deposits on Mercury using the Mercury Laser Altimeter and small craters in permanently shadowed regions, by Ariel N. Deutsch, James W. Head, Nancy L. Chabot & Gregory A. Neumann, and has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.
We know that there is some ice at the surface of Mercury, and the study wonders how much. Since Mercury is close to the Sun, its surface is usually hot enough to sublimate the ice… except in permanently shadowed regions, i.e. in craters. For that, the authors compared the measured depth of small craters, and compared it with the expected depth from the excavation of material by an impactor. The difference is supposed to be ice deposit.

Mercury and MESSENGER

The planet Mercury is known at least since the 14th century BC. It was named after the Roman messenger god Mercurius, or Hermes in Greek, since the messengers saw it at dawn when they left, and at dusk when they arrived. The reason is that Mercury is in fact pretty close to the Sun, i.e. three times closer than our Earth. So, usually the Sun is so bright that it prevents us from observing it. Unless it is below the horizon, which happens at dawn and at dusk.

Mercury makes a full revolution around the Sun in 88 days, and a full rotation in 58 days. This 2/3 ratio is a dynamical equilibrium, named 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which has been reached after slow despinning over the ages. This despinning is indeed a loss of energy, which has been favored by the tidal (gravitational) action of the Sun. This resulting spin-orbit resonant configuration is a unique case in the Solar System. A consequence is that the Solar day on Mercury lasts 176 days, i.e. if you live on Mercury, the apparent course of the Sun in the sky lasts 176 days.

The proximity of the Sun makes Mercury a challenge for exploration. Mariner 10 made 3 fly-bys of it in 1974-1975, mapping 45% of its surface, and measuring a tiny magnetic field. We had to wait until 2011 for the US spacecraft MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) to be the first human-made object inserted into orbit around Mercury. The orbital phase lasted 4 years, and gave us a full map of the planet, gravity data, accurate measurements of its rotation, a list of craters, measurements of the magnetic field,…

The instrument of interest today is named MLA, for Mercury Laser Altimeter. This instrument used an infrared laser (wavelength: 1,064 nanometers) to estimate the height of the surface from the reflection of the laser: you send a laser signal, you get it back some time later, and from the time you have the distance, since you know the velocity, which is the velocity of the light. And in applying this technique all along the orbit, you produce a map of the whole planet. This permits for instance to estimate the size and depth of the craters.

The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).
The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).

Ice on Mercury

The discovery of ice at the poles of Mercury was announced in 1992. It was permitted by Earth-based radar imagery made at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave desert, in California (USA). Ice is pretty easy to uncover, because of its high reflectivity. But this raises some questions:

  1. How can ice survive on Mercury?
  2. How much ice is there?
  3. How did it arrive?
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google

The first question is not really a mystery. Because of its long Solar day and its absence of atmosphere (actually Mercury has a very tenuous exosphere, but we can forget it), Mercury experiences huge variations of temperature between day and night, i.e. from 100K to 700K, or -173°C to 427°C, or -279°F to 801°F (it is in fact not accurate at the 1°F level…). So, when a region is illuminated, the water ice is definitely not stable. However, there are regions, especially at the poles, which are never illuminated. There ice can survive.

The last two questions are answered by this study.

Ice is still present in craters

For not being illuminated, it helps to be close to a pole, but the topography can be helpful as well. The surface of Mercury is heavily cratered, and the bottoms of some of these craters are always hidden from the Sun. This is where the authors looked for ice. More precisely, they investigated 10 small craters within 10 degrees of the north pole. And for each of them, they estimated the expected depth from the diameter, and compared it with the measured depth. If it does not match, then you have water ice at the bottom. Easy, isn’t it?

The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA
The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA

Well, it is not actually that easy. The question is: did the water ice arrive after or before the excavation of the crater? If it arrived before, then the impactor just excavated some ice, and the measurements do not tell you anything.

Another challenge is to deal with the uncertainties. MLA was a wonderful instrument, with an accuracy smaller than the meter. Very well. But you are not that accurate if you want to predict the depth of a crater from its diameter. The authors used an empirical formula proposed by another study: d=(0.17±0.04)D0.96±0.11, where d is the depth, and D the diameter. The problem is the ±, i.e. that formula is not exact. This uncertainty is physically relevant, since the depth of the crater might depend on the incidence angle of the impact, which you don’t know, or on the material at the exact location of the impact… and this is a problem, since you cannot be that accurate on the theoretical depth of the crater. The authors provide a numerical example: a 400-m diameter crater has an expected depth between 21.2 and 127.7 m… So, there is a risk that the thickness of ice that you would measure would be so uncertain that actual detection would be unsure. And this is what happens in almost of all the craters. But the detection is secured by the fact that several craters are involved: the more data you have, the lower the uncertainties. And the ice thickness derived from several craters is more accurate than the one derived from a single crater.

Results: how much ice?

And the result is: the ice thickness is 41+30-14m. The uncertainty is large, but the number remains positive anyway, which means that the detection is positive! Moreover, it is consistent with previous studies, from the detection of polar ice with Goldstone facilities, to similar studies on other regions of Mercury. So, there is ice on Mercury.
An extrapolation of this result suggests that the total mass of water ice on the surface of Mercury is “1014-1015 kg, which is equivalent to ~100-1,000 km3 ice in volume, assuming pure water ice with no porosity” (quoted from the study).

The origin of ice

Mercury is a dense planet, i.e. too dense for such a small planet. It is widely accepted that Mercury as we see it constituted a core of a proto-Mercury, which has been stripped from its mantle of lighter elements. Anyway, Mercury is too dense for the water ice to originate from it. It should come from outside, i.e. it has been brought by impactors. The authors cite studies stating that such a quantity could have been brought by micrometeorites, by Jupiter-family comets, and even by a single impactor.

Another spacecraft soon

Such a study does not only exploit the MESSENGER data, but is also a way to anticipate the future measurements by Bepi-Colombo. This mission will be constituted of two orbiters, one supervised by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the other one by the Japanese agency JAXA. Bepi-Colombo should be launched in October 2018 from Kourou (French Guiana), and inserted into orbit around Mercury in April 2026. Its accuracy is expected to be 10 times better than the one of MESSENGER, and the studies inferring results from MESSENGER data can be seen as predictions for Bepi-Colombo.

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 (NEW) Pinterest.

The Brazil Nut Effect on asteroids

Hi there! You know these large nuts called Brazil nuts? Don’t worry, I will not make you think that they grow on asteroids. No they don’t. But when you put nuts in a pot, or in a glass, have you ever noticed that the biggest nuts remain at the top? That seems obvious, since we are used to that. But let us think about it… these are the heaviest nuts, and they don’t sink! WTF!!! And you have the same kind of effect on small bodies, asteroids, planetesimals, comets… I present you today a Japanese study about that, entitled Categorization of Brazil nut effect and its reverse under less-convective conditions for microgravity geology by Toshihiro Chujo, Osamu Mori, Jun’ichiro Kawaguchi, and Hajime Yano. This study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Brazil Nut and Reverse Brazil Nut effects

The idea is easy to figure out. If you have a pot full of different nuts, then the smallest ones will be naturally closer to the bottom, since they are small enough to fill the voids between the largest ones. For the same reason, if you fill a bucket first with stones and then with sand, the sand will naturally reach the bottom, flowing around the stones. Flowing is important here, since the sand pretty much behaves as a fluid. And of course, if you put the sand in the bucket first, and then the stones, the stones will naturally be closer to the top. Well, this is the Brazil Nut Effect.

OK, now let us make the story go one step further… You have an empty bucket, and you put sand inside… a third of it, or a half… this results as a flat structure. You put stones, which then cover the sand, lying on its surface… and you shake. You shake the bucket, many times… what happen? the sand is moving, and makes some room for the stones, or just some of them, which migrate deeper… if you shake enough, then some of them can even reach the bottom. This is the Reverse Brazil Nut Effect.

And the funny thing is that you can find this effect on planetary bodies! Wait, we may have a problem… when the body is large enough, then the material tends to melt, the heaviest one migrating to the core. So, the body has to be small enough for its interior being ruled by the Brazil Nut Effect, or its reversed version. If the body is small enough, then we are in conditions of microgravity. The authors give the examples of the Near-Earth Asteroid (433)Eros, its largest diameter being 34.4 km, the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which is ten times smaller in length, and the asteroid (25143)Itokawa, its largest length being 535 meters. All of these bodies are in conditions of microgravity, and were visited by spacecraft, i.e. NEAR Shoemaker for Eros in 2001, Rosetta for Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, and Hayabusa for Itokawa in 2003. And all of these space missions have revealed pebbles and boulders at the surface, which motivated the study of planetary terrains in conditions of microgravity.

Eros seen by NEAR Shoemaker. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL
Eros seen by NEAR Shoemaker. © NASA/JPL-Caltech/JHUAPL

I mentioned the necessity to shake the bucket to give a chance to Reverse Brazil Nut Effect. How to shake these small bodies? With impact, of course. You have impactors everywhere in the Solar System, and small bodies do not need impactors to be large to be shaken enough. Moreover, this shaking could come from cometary activity, in case of a comet, which is true for Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The authors studied this process both with numerical simulations, and lab experiments.

Numerical simulations

The numerical simulations were conducted with a DEM code, for Discrete Element Modeling. It consisted to simulate the motion of particle which touch each others, or touch the wall of the container. These particles are spheres, and you have interactions when contact. These interactions are modeled with a mixture of spring (elastic interaction, i.e. without dissipation of energy) and dashpot (or damper, which induces a loss of energy at each contact). These two effects are mixed together in using the so-called Voigt rheology.

In every simulation, the authors had 10,224 small particles (the sand), and a large one, named intruder, which is the stone trying to make its way through the sand.

The simulations differed by

  • the density of the intruder (light as acryl, moderately dense as glass, or heavy as high-carbon chromium steel),
  • the frequency of the shaking, modeled as a sinusoidal oscillation over 50 cycles,
  • the restitution coefficient between the sand of the intruder. If it is null, then you dissipate all the energy when contact between the intruder and the sand, and when it is equal to unity then the interaction is purely elastic, i.e. you have no energy loss.

Allowing those parameters to vary will result in different outcomes of the simulations. This way, the influence of each of those parameters is being studied.

A drawback of some simulations is the computation time, since you need to simulate the behavior of each of the particles simultaneously. This is why the authors also explored another way: lab experiments.

Lab experiments

You just put sand in a container, you put an intruder, you shake, and you observe what is going on. Well, said that way, it seems to be easy. It is actually more complicated than that if you want to make proper job.

The recipient was an acryl cylinder, put on a vibration test machine. This machine was controlled by a device, which guaranteed the accuracy of the sinusoidal shaking, i.e. its amplitude, its frequency, and the total duration of the experiment. The intruder was initially put in the middle of the sand, i.e. half way between the bottom of the recipient and the surface of the sand. If it reached the bottom before 30,000 oscillation cycles, then the conclusion was RBNE, and if it raised from the surface the conclusion was BNE. Otherwise, these two effects were considered to be somehow roughly balanced.

But wait: the goal is to model the surface of small bodies, i.e. in conditions of microgravity. The authors did the experiment on Earth, so…? There are ways to reproduce microgravity conditions, like in a parabolic flight, or on board the International Space Station, but this was not the case here. The authors worked in a lab, submitted to our terrestrial gravity. The difficulty is to draw conclusions for the asteroids from Earth-based lab experiments.

At this point, the theory assists the experimentation. If you write down the equations ensuing from the physics (I don’t do it… feel free to do so if you want), these equations ruling the DEM code for instance, you will be able to manipulate them (yes you will) so as to make them depend on dimensionless parameters. For instance: your size is in meters (or in feet). It has the physical dimension of a length. But if you divide your size with the one of your neighbor, you should get something close to unity, but this will be a dimensionless quantity, as the ratio between your size and your neighbor’s. The size of your neighbor is now your reference (let him know, I am sure he would be delighted), and if your size if larger than 1, it means that you are taller than your neighbor (are you?). In the case of our Brazil Nut experiment, the equations give you a gravity, which you can divide by the local one, i.e. either the gravity of your lab, or the microgravity of an asteroid. The result of your simulation will be expressed with respect to this ratio, which you can then re-express with respect to the microgravity of your asteroid. So, all this is a matter of scale. These scaling laws are ubiquitous in lab experiments, and they permit to work in many other contexts.

Triggering the Reverse Brazil Nut effect

And here are the results:

  • The outcomes of the experiments match the ones of the numerical simulations.
  • The authors saw practically no granular convection, i.e. the sand initially at the bottom does not migrate to the top. This is here an analogy with fluid mechanics, in which water at the bottom can raise to the top, especially when it warms (warm water is less dense than cold one).
  • Densest intruders are the likeliest to migrate to the bottom.
  • The authors identified 3 distinct behaviors for the particles, depending on a dimensionless acceleration Γ.

These behaviors are:

  1. Slow Brazil Nut Effect,
  2. Fast BNE, for which the intruder requires less oscillation cycles to raise,
  3. Fluid motion, which may induce RBNE. This is favored by rapid oscillations of the shaking.

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, and (NEW) Instagram.

The lunar history

(Alternative title: The search for the origin of the Late Heavy Bombardment)

Hi there! It is a pleasure for me to present you today a multi-disciplinary study, which mixes celestial mechanics with geochemistry. If you want to know the past of a planetary body, you must go backward: you start from the body as you observe it nowadays, and from this you infer the processes which made it evolve from its formation to its present state. In The timeline of the Lunar bombardment – revisited, by A. Morbidelli, D. Nesvorný, V. Laurenz, S. Marchi, D.C. Rubie, L. Elkins-Tanton, M. Wieczorek and S. Jacobson, the authors exploit our observations of the craters and the chemistry of the Moon, and simulations of the motion of asteroids in the early Solar System, to give new constraints on the bombardment of the Moon between 3.9 and 3.7 Gyr (billions of years) ago, which is famous as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). We will see that the results have implications for Mars. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The Lunar basins

Let us start from what we observe: the Lunar surface. This is a heavily cratered surface. Actually, the absence of atmosphere preserves it from erosion, and the small size of the Moon limits its heating, as a consequence the craters neither erode nor relax. Hence, the surface of the Moon is a signature of the activity in the early Solar System.

Let us focus on the largest structures, i.e. the maria and the basins. The maria are lava plains, which result from a volcanic activity of the early Moon. However, the basins are the largest impact craters. You can find below the largest ones, of course many smaller craters exist.

Basin Diameter (km)
South Pole-Aitken 2,600
Imbrium 1,100
Orientale 930
Serenitatis 920
Australe 880
Nectaris 860
Smythii 740
Crisium 740
Tranquillitatis 700
Tsiolkovsky-Stark 700
Fecunditatis 690
Mutus-Vlacq 690
Nubium 690

The early Moon was hot, because of the impact which created it. As a hot body, it stratified into a fluid core, a mantle and a crust, while cooling. The visible impact craters are younger than the crust, i.e. they are younger than 3.9 Gyr, and were created at least 600 Myr after the formation of the Moon… pretty late, hence due to the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Orientale Basin. © NASA
Orientale Basin. © NASA

Origin of the LHB: cataclysm or accretion tail?

Late Heavy Bombardment means that the inner Solar System have been intensively bombarded late after its genesis. But how did that happen? Two scenarios can be found in the literature:

  1. Cataclysm: the very young Solar System was very active, i.e. composed of many small bodies which collided, partly accreting… and became pretty quiet during some hundreds of Myr… before suddenly, a new phase of bombardment occurred.
  2. Accretion tail: the Solar System had a slowly decreasing activity, and the craters on the Moon are just the signature of the last 200 Myrs. The previous impacts were not recorded, since the surface was still molten.

The second scenario could be preferred, as the simplest one. The first one needs a cause which would trigger this second phase of bombardment. Anyway, many numerical simulations of the early Solar System got such an activity, as a dynamical phenomenon destabilizing the orbits of a group of small bodies, which themselves entered the inner Solar System and collided with the planets, accreting on them. The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn have a dominant dynamical influence on the small bodies of the Solar System, and could have triggered such an instability. One of the theories existing in the literature is the E-Belt, for extended belt. It would have been an internal extension of the Main Belt of asteroids, which would have been destabilized by a secular resonance with Saturn, and has finished as the impactors of the LHB. Why not, this is a theory.

When you model phenomena having occurred several billions years ago, you have so many uncertainties that you cannot be certain that your solution is the right one. This is why the literature proposes several scenarios. Further studies test them, and sometimes (this is the case here) give additional constraints, which refine them.

Thanks to the Apollo mission, samples of the Moon have been analyzed on Earth, and geochemistry can tell us many things on the history of a body. For the Moon, focus has been put on siderophile elements.

What siderophile elements tell us

A siderophile element is a chemical element which has affinity with iron. Among these elements are iron, iridium, palladium, platinum, rubidium… When a planetary body is hot, it tends to differentiate, and its heaviest elements, i.e. iron, migrate to the core. This results in a depletion of highly siderophile elements (HSE). Since a very small abundance of these elements has been observed, then we have no problem, thank you…

NO NO NO there is actually a problem, since these siderophile elements should be present in the impactors, which are supposed to have accreted on the Moon AFTER its stratification… yes we have a problem.

But some of the authors have shown recently that on Earth, another phenomenon could remove the HSEs from the crust, well after the formation of the core: the exsolution and segregation of iron sulfide. In other words, the bombardment could have brought more HSEs than currently recorded. And this motivates to revisite the history of the Lunar bombardment.

Simulating the bombardment

So, the observations are: the craters, and the HSEs. The craters are not only the basins, but also the smaller ones, with diameters larger than 1 km. Even smaller craters could be used, but the data are considered to be reliable, i.e. exhaustive, for craters larger than 1 km. From that size to the large basins, we can fit a function of distribution, i.e. number of craters vs. diameter. Since there is an obvious correlation between the size of a crater and the one of the impactor, a population of craters corresponds to a population of impactors.

The authors dispose of statistics of collisions, which could be seen as mass accretion, between the Moon and small bodies during the early ages of the Solar System. These statistics result from numerical simulations conducted by some of them, and they can be fine-tuned to fit the crater distribution, their estimated ages, and the abundance of highly siderophile elements. Fine-tuning the statistics consist in artificially moving the parameters of the simulation, for instance the initial number of small bodies, or the date of the instability provoking the cataclysm, in the cataclysm scenario.

Cataclysm possible, accretion tail preferred

And here is the result: if the HSEs are only due to the mass accretion after the cooling of the Lunar crust, then the observations can only be explained by the cataclysm, i.e. the LHB would be due to a late instability. This instability would have resulted in a mass accretion from comets, and this raises another problem: this accretion seems to lack of primitive, carbonaceous material, while the comets contain some.

However, if the HSEs have been removed after the cooling of the crust, then the accretion tail scenario is possible.

We should accept that for this kind of study, the solution is not unique. A way to tend to the unicity of the solution is to discuss further implications, in examining other clues. And the authors mention the tungsten.

Tungsten is another marker

Tungsten is rather a lithophile than a siderophile element, at least in the presence of iron sulfide. In other words, even if it does not dislike iron, it prefers lithium (I like this way of discussing chemistry). Something puzzling is a significant difference in the ratios of two isotopes of tungsten (182W and 184W) between the Moon and the Earth. This difference could be primordial, as brought by the projectile which is supposed to have splitted the proto-Earth into the Earth and the Moon (nickname of the projectile: Theia), or it could be due to the post-formation mass accumulation. In that case, that would be another constraint on the LHB.

Implications for Mars

The LHB has affected the whole inner Solar System. So, if a scenario is valid for the Moon, it must be valid for Mars.
This is why the authors did the job for Mars as well. A notable difference is that Mars would be less impacted by comets than the Moon, and this would affect the composition of the accreted material. More precisely, a cataclysmic LHB would be a mixture of asteroids and comets, while an accretion tail one would essentially consist of leftover planetesimals. It appears that this last scenario, i.e. the accretion tail one, can match the distribution of craters and the abundance of HSEs. However, the cataclysmic scenario would not bring enough HSEs on Mars.

Predictions

This study tells us that the accretion tail scenario is possible. The authors show that it would imply that

  1. The quantity of remaining HSEs on the Moon is correlated with the crystallization of the Lunar magma ocean, which itself regulates the age of the earliest Lunar crust.
  2. For Mars, the Noachian era would have started 200 Myr earlier than currently thought, i.e. 4.3 Gyr instead of 4.1 Gyr. That period is characterized by high rates of meteorite and asteroid impacts and the possible presence of abundant surface water. Moreover, the Borealis formation, i.e. the northern hemisphere of Mars, which seems to be a very large impact basin, should have been formed 4.37 Gyr ago.

Further studies, explorations, space missions, lab experiments,… should give us new data, which would challenge these implications and refine these scenarios. So, the wording prediction can seem weird for past phenomena, but the prediction is for new clues.

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 and Facebook.