Category Archives: Asteroids: Trans-Neptunian Objects

A polar resonant asteroid

Hi there! Did you know that an asteroid could be resonant and in polar orbit? Yes? No? Anyway, one of them has been confirmed as such, i.e. this body was already discovered, known to be on a polar orbit, but it was not known to be in mean-motion resonance with Neptune until now. This is the opportunity for me to present you First transneptunian object in polar resonance with Neptune, by M.H.M. Morais and F. Namouni. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Polar asteroids

The planets of the Solar System orbit roughly in the same plane. In other words, they have small mutual inclinations. However, asteroids are much more scattered, and can have any inclination with respect to the ecliptic, i.e. the orbital plane of the Earth, even if low inclinations are favored.

Two angles are needed to orientate an orbit:

  • the ascending node, which varies between 0 and 360°, and which is the angle between a reference and the intersection between the ecliptic and the orbital plane,
  • the inclination, which is the angle between the ecliptic and the orbital plane. It varies between 0° and 180°.

So, an almost planar orbit means an inclination close to 0° or close to 180°. Orbits close to 0° are prograde, while orbits close to 180° are retrograde. However, when your inclination is close to 90°, then you have a polar orbit. There are prograde and retrograde polar orbits, whether the inclination is smaller (prograde) or larger (retrograde) than 90°.

There are 7 known Trans-Neptunian Objects with an eccentricity smaller than 0.86 and inclination between 65 and 115°, hence 7 known polar TNOs. You can find them below:

Semimajor axis Eccentricity Inclination Ascending node Period
(471325) 2011 KT19 (Niku) 35.58 AU 0.33 110.12° 243.76° 212.25 y
2008 KV42 (Drac) 41.44 AU 0.49 103.41° 260.89° 266.75 y
2014 TZ33 38.32 AU 0.75 86.00° 171.79° 237.20 y
2015 KZ120 46.07 AU 0.82 85.55° 249.98° 312.70 y
(127546)2002 XU93 67.47 AU 0.69 77.95° 90.39° 554.18 y
2010 WG9 52.90 AU 0.65 70.33° 92.07° 384.77 y
2017 CX33 73.97 AU 0.86 72.01° 315.88° 636.21 y

These bodies carry in their names their year of discovery. As you can see, the first of them has been discovered only 15 years ago. We should keep in mind that TNOs orbit very far from the Earth, this is why they are so difficult to discover, polar or not.

The last of them, 2017 CX33, is so recent that the authors did not study it. A recent discovery induces a pretty large uncertainty on the orbital elements, so waiting permits to stay on the safe side. Among the 6 remaining, 4 (Niku, Drac, 2002 XU93 and 2010 WG9) share (very) roughly the same orbit, 2 of them being prograde, while the others two are retrograde. This happened very unlikely by chance, but the reason for this rough alignment is still a mystery.

Orbits of the polar TNOs, in the x-y plane.
Orbits of the polar TNOs, in the x-y plane.
Orbits of the polar TNOs, in the y-z plane.
Orbits of the polar TNOs, in the y-z plane.

The study I present you today investigated the current dynamics of these bodies, and found a resonant behavior for one of them (Niku).

Behavior of the resonant asteroids

By resonant behavior, I mean that an asteroid is affected by a mean-motion resonance with a planet. This means that it makes a given (integer) number of revolutions around the Sun, while the planet makes another number of revolutions. Many outcomes are possible. It can slowly enhance the eccentricity and / or the inclination, which could eventually lead to a chaotic behavior, instability, collision… it could also protect the body from close encounters…

It usually translates into an integer combination of the fundamental frequencies of the system (orbital frequencies, frequencies of precession of the nodes and pericentres), which is null, and this results in an integer combination of angles positioning the asteroid of the planet, which oscillates around a given number instead of circulating. In other words, this angle is bounded.

Another point of interest is how the asteroid has been trapped into the resonance. A resonance is between two interacting bodies, but the mass ratio between an asteroid and a planet implies that the planet is insensitive to the gravitational action of the asteroid, and so the asteroid is trapped by the planet. The fundamental frequencies of the orbital motion are controlled by the semimajor axes of the two bodies, so a trapping into a resonance results from a variation of the semimajor axes. Models of formation of the Solar System suggest that the planets have migrated, this could be a cause. Another cause is close encounters between planets and asteroids, which result in abrupt changes in the trajectory of the asteroid. And this is probably the case here: Niku got trapped after a close encounter.

Numerical and analytical study

The authors used both numerical and analytical methods to get, understand, and secure their results.

Numerical study

The authors ran long-term numerical simulations of the orbital motion of the 6 relevant asteroids, perturbed by the planets. They ran 3 kinds of simulations: 2 with different integrators (algorithms) over 400 kyr and 100 Myr and 8 planets, and one over 400 Myr and the four giant planets. With less planets, you go faster. Moreover, since the inner planets have shorter orbital periods, removing them allows you to increase the time-step, and thus go further in time, inward and backward. In each of these simulations, the authors cloned the asteroids to take into consideration the uncertainty on the orbital elements. They used for that a well-known devoted code, MERCURY.

Analytical study

Numerical studies give you an idea of the possible dynamical states of a system, but you need to write down equations to fully understand it. Beside these numerical simulations, the authors wrote a dynamical theory of resonant polar orbits, in another paper (or here).

This consists in reducing the equations to the only terms, which are useful to reproduce the resonant dynamics. For that, you keep the secular variations, i.e. precessions of the nodes and pericentres, and the term involving the resonant argument. This is a kind of averaged dynamics, in which all of the small oscillations of the orbital elements have been dropped. To improve the relevance of the model, the authors used orbital elements which are based on the barycenter (center of mass) of the whole Solar System instead on the Sun only. This is a small correction, since the barycenter is at the edge of the Sun, but the authors mention that it improves their results.


Niku, i.e. (471325) 2011 KT19, is trapped into a 7:9 mean-motion resonance with Neptune. In other words, it makes 7 revolutions around the Sun (sorry: the barycenter of the Solar System) while Neptune makes 9. More precisely, its resonant argument is φ=9λ-7λN-4ϖ+2Ω, where λ and λN are the mean longitudes of the asteroid and of Neptune, respectively, ϖ is the longitude of its pericenter, and Ω is the one of its ascending node. Plotting this argument shows a libration around 180°. Niku has been trapped in this resonance after a close encounter with Neptune, and should leave this resonance in 16±11 Myr. This means that all of the numerical simulations involving Niku show a resonant object, however they disagree on the duration of the resonance.
Their might be another resonant object: a few simulations suggest that Drac, i.e. 2008 KV42 is in a 8:13 mean-motion resonance with Neptune.

To know more

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.

A new contact binary

Hi there! Today I will tell you on the discovery that an already known Trans-Neptunian Object is in fact probably a contact binary. This is the opportunity for me to present you 2004 TT357: A potential contact binary in the Trans-Neptunian Belt by Audrey Thirouin, Scott S. Sheppard, and Keith S. Noll. This study has recently been published in The Astrophysical Journal.

2004 TT357‘s facts

As suggested by its name, 2004 TT357 was discovered in 2004. More precisely in August by a team led by Marc W. Buie, at Kitt Peak Observatory, Arizona, USA, on the 4-m Mayall telescope. From its magnitude, its radius is estimated to be between 87 and 218 km, depending on the albedo of the asteroid, i.e. the fraction of Solar light which is reflected by its surface. This albedo is unknown. You can find below its orbital elements.

Orbital elements of 2004 TT357
Semimajor axis 54.97 AU
Eccentricity 0.43
Orbital period 408 y

These elements show that 2004 TT357 is in a 5:2 mean-motion resonance in Neptune, i.e. it performs 2 revolutions around the Sun while Neptune makes 5. This makes 2004 TT357 a Scaterred Disc Resonant Object. Its high eccentricity is probably at least partly due to this resonance.

Contact binaries

In astronomy, a binary object is a group of two objects, which are so linked together that they orbit around a common barycenter. Of course, their separation is pretty small. There are binary stars, here we speak about binary asteroids.
A contact binary is a kind of extreme case, in which the two components touch each other. In some sense, this is a single object, but with two different lobes. This was probably a former classical binary, which lost enough angular momentum so that the two objects eventually collided, but slowly enough to avoid any catastrophic outcome. It is thought that there is a significant fraction of contact binaries in the Solar System, i.e. between 5% and 50%, depending on the group you are considering.

Characterizing a known object as a contact binary is not an easy task, particularly for the Trans-Neptunian Objects, because of their distance to us. Among them, only (139775) 2001 QG298 is a confirmed contact binary, while 2003 SQ317 and (486958) 2014 MU69 are probable ones. This study concludes that 2004 TT357 is a probable one as well.

Observations at Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory is located in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. It has been founded by Percival Lowell in 1894, and among its achievements is the discovery of the former planet Pluto in 1930, by Clyde Tombaugh. Currently, the largest of its instruments is the 4.3-m Discovery Channel Telescope (DCT), which has been partly funded by Discovery Communications. This telescope has its first light in April 2012, it is located in the Coconino National Forest near Happy Jack, Arizona, at an altitude of 2,360 meters.

The Discovery Channel Telescope. © Lowell Observatory
The Discovery Channel Telescope. © Lowell Observatory

The authors used this telescope, equipped with the Large Monolithic Imager (LMI). They acquired two sets of observation, in December 2015 and February 2017, during which they posed during 600 and 700 seconds, respectively. 2004 TT357 had then a mean visual magnitude of 22.6 and 23, respectively.

The Large Monolithic Imager. © Lowell Observatory
The Large Monolithic Imager. © Lowell Observatory

Analyzing the data

You can find below the photometric measurements of 2004 TT357.

The first set of observations. The measurements are represented with the uncertainties.
The first set of observations. The measurements are represented with the uncertainties.
The second set of observations. The measurements are represented with the uncertainties.
The second set of observations. The measurements are represented with the uncertainties.

We can see pretty significant variations of the incoming light flux, these variations being pretty periodic. This periodicity is the signature of the rotation of the asteroid, which does not always present the same face to the terrestrial observer. From these lightcurves, the authors measure a rotation period of 7.79±0.01 h. From the curves, the period seems twice smaller, but if we consider that the asteroid should be an ellipsoid, then its geometrical symmetries tell us that our line of sight should be aligned twice with the long axis and twice with the short axis during a single period. So, during a rotation period, we should see two minimums and two maximums. This assumes that we are close to the equatorial plane.

Another interesting fact is the pretty high amplitude of variation of the incident light flux. If you are interested in it, go directly to the next section. Before that, I would like to tell you how this period of 7.79±0.01 h has been determined.

The authors used 2 different algorithms:

  • the Lomb periodogram technique,
  • the phase dispersion minimization (PDM).

Usually periodic signals are described as sums of sinusoids, thanks to Fourier transforms. Unfortunately, Fourier is not suitable for unevenly-spaced data. The Lomb (or Lomb-Scargle) periodogram technique consists to fit a sinusoid to the data, thanks to the least-squares method, i.e. you minimize the squares of the departure of your signal from a sinusoid, in adjusting its amplitude, phase, and frequency. PDM is an astronomical adaptation of data folding. You guess a period, and you split your full time interval into sub-intervals, which duration is the period you have guessed. Then you superimpose them. If this the period you have guessed is truly a period of the signal, then all of your time intervals should give you pretty the same signal. If not, then the period you have guessed is not a period of the signal.

Let us go back now to the variations in the amplitude.

Physical interpretation

The authors assume that periodic magnitude variations could have 3 causes:

  • Albedo variations
  • Elongation of the asteroid
  • Two bodies, i.e. a binary.

The albedo quantify the portion of Solar flux, which is reflected by the surface. Here, the variations are too large to be due to the variations of the albedo.

The authors estimate that, if 2004 TT357 were a single, ellipsoidal body, then a/b = 2.01 and c/a = 0.38, a,b, and c being the 3 axis of the ellipsoid. This is hardly possible if the shape corresponds to an equilibrium figure (hydrostatic equilibrium, giving a Jacobi ellipsoid). Moreover, this would mean that 2004 TT357 would have been ideally oriented… very unlikely

As a consequence, 2004 TT357 is probably a binary, with a mass ratio between 0.4 and 0.8. Hubble Space Telescope observed 2004 TT357 in 2012, and detected no companion, which means it is probably a contact binary. Another way to detect a companion is the analysis of a stellar occultation (see here). Fortunately for us, one will occur in February 2018.

A star occultation in February 2018

On 5 February 2018, 2004 TT357 shall occult the 12.8-magnitude star 2UCAC 38383610, in the constellation Taurus, see here. This occultation should be visible from Brazil, and provide us new data which would help to determine the nature of 2004 TT357. Are you interested to observe?

To know more

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Measuring an asteroid from its shadow

Hi there! Today’s post is on the paper Results from the 2014 November 15th multi-chord stellar occultation by the TNO (229762) 2007 UK126, by Gustavo Benedetti-Rossi and 28 colleagues, which has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal. It explains us what 22 simultaneous observations of the same event, i.e. the occultation of a star by an asteroid, tell us about this asteroid.

The asteroid (229762) 2007 UK126

(229762) 2007 UK126 is a Trans-Neptunian Object, which was discovered in October 2007. Its highly eccentricity orbit (0.49) makes it a probable scattered disc object, i.e. its eccentricity should have been pumped by the planets, in particular Neptune. Its estimated rotation period is 11.05 hours. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed the presence of an orbital companion.

Even at its perihelion, this object is further than Neptune, which makes it difficult to observe. The stellar occultations permit to bypass this problem.

The strategy of observation

The idea is this: while a pretty dark object passes just between you and a star, you do no see the star anymore. The dark object occults it. This occultation contains information.

This is the reason why some planetary scientists try to predict occultations from simulations of the motion of asteroids in the sky, maintaining lists of such events. These predictions suffer from uncertainties on the orbit of the asteroid, this motivates the need to refine the predictions just before the predicted event. For that, astrometric observations of the object are performed, to better constrain its orbital ephemerides.

Once the occultation is predicted with enough accuracy, the observers are informed of the date and the places from where to observe. Multiple observations of the same event, at different locations, represent a set of data which will then be inverted to get information on the asteroid. For these observations to be conducted, amateur astronomers are solicited. They usually constitute networks, which efficiency is doped by their enthusiasm.

The observation of a stellar occultation consists to measure the light flux received from the star during a time interval which includes the predicted event, and when the occultation happens, then a flux drop should be registered. For an observation to be useful, the observer should take care to have an accurate time reference. Moreover, a clear sky, preferably with no wind, makes the measurements more accurate. Some flux drops could be actually due to clouds passing by!

What can these observations tell us?

The first information we get from these occultations addresses the motion of the asteroid: the date and length of the occultation is an information, because we know where the asteroid was on the celestial sphere when this happened. When no occultation is detected, this is an information as well, even if it is frustrating.
Observing at different places permits to observe the occultation of the star by different parts of the asteroid. This is called a multi-chord occultation. From the duration of the event, we can deduce the size of the object with a much better accuracy than direct observation. Such a technique could also detect companions, as it might have been the case for the Main-Belt asteroid (146)Lucina in 1982.

A compelling information on a planetary body is its mass. The best way to measure its mass is by observing the orbit of a companion, if there is one. If there is none, or if its orbit cannot be observed, then we can combine the different measurements of its radius with the measurement of its rotation period and the assumption that its shape is at an hydrostatic equilibrium, i.e. a balance between its own gravity, its rotation, and possibly the gravitational (tidal) attraction of a planetary companion. In the absence of a companion, the equilibrium figure is an oblate, MacLaurin spheroid, which has a circular equatorial section, and a rotation axis which is smaller than the two other ones. If a companion is involved, then the object could be a Jacobi ellipsoid, i.e. an ellipsoid with 3 different principal axes.

This study

This study gathers the results of 20 observations of the stellar occultation of the star UCAC4 448-006503 by the TNO (229762) 2007 UK126 in November 2014, all over the United States, and 2 negative observations, i.e. no flux drop measured, in Mexico. One of the difficulties is is to be accurate on the exact times of the beginning (ingress) and the end (egress) of the event, i.e. the star disappearance and reappearance. This is the reason why the authors of the study split into two teams, which treated the same data separately, with their own techniques (denoted GBR and MWB, since conducted by Gustavo Benedetti-Rossi and Marc W. Buie, respectively).

And here are some of their results:

Before GBR MWB
Longest radius (km) 339+15-10 340+12-8
Equivalent radius (km) 299.5±38.9 319+14-7 319+12-6
Circular fit radius (km) 324+27-23 328+26-21
Apparent oblateness 0.106+0.050-0.040 0.118+0.055-0.048
Density (kg/m3) <1740 <1620

This table tells us that, before the occultation, only a mean radius was known, and with a much larger uncertainty than now. It also tells us that assuming the asteroid to be circular instead of elliptical gives a larger uncertainty. Wait… why circular and not spherical? Why elliptical and not ellipsoidal? Because the occultation is ruled by the projection of the shape of the asteroid on the celestial sphere, which is a 2D surface. So, we observe a surface, and not a volume, even if our assumptions on the shape (remember, the MacLaurin spheroid) give us a 3D information.
This is why the oblateness is just an apparent oblateness. It is actually biased by the projection on the celestial sphere. This oblateness is defined by the quantity (a-b)/a, where a and b are the two axes of the projected asteroid, with a > b.

To know more…

You can find the study on the web site of The Astronomical Journal. It has also been freely made available by the authors on arXiv. Thanks to the authors for sharing! Here is the webpage of the RECON and IOTA networks, which were of great help for the observations.

The authors

Here are their web pages or research profiles:

I hope you enjoyed this post. As usual, please let me know what you think about it. Happy holidays to everybody, and see you soon!