Category Archives: Asteroids: Trans-Neptunian Objects

OSSOS discovered 838 Trans-Neptunian Objects

Hi there! Today I will tell you of the survey OSSOS, which I already mentioned in the past. This survey made systematic observations of the sky to detect Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), between 2013 and 2017. It was indeed a success, since it tripled the number of known TNOs. Its results are presented in OSSOS. VII. 800+ Trans-Neptunian Objects — The complete Data Release, led by Michele Bannister. This study is published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Previous surveys

The Trans-Neptunian Objects orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. As such, observing them is a challenge. Pluto was the only known of them from its discovery in 1930, to the discovery of (15760) Albion in 1992. We now know 1,142 Trans-Neptunian Objects, essentially due to 4 surveys. The most prolific of them is the last one, i.e. OSSOS, but a survey cannot exist without its precursors, which were

  1. Deep Ecliptic Survey (DES),
  2. Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS),
  3. Pan-STARRS1.
The Deep Ecliptic Survey (DES)

The Deep Ecliptic Survey has been operating between 1998 and 2003, using two 4-m telescopes of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory: the Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory (Arizona, USA), and the Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (Chile). It discovered 382 TNOs, including some Centaurs, which actually orbit inner to the orbit of Neptune. It covered 550 square degrees with sensitivity of 22.5.

The Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS)

This survey operated between early 2003 and early 2007, at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (Hawaii, USA). It covered 321 square degrees with sensitivity of 24.4, and permitted to classify 169 TNOs. By classifying, I do not mean only discover, but also know their orbits with enough accuracy to determine to which dynamical group they belong. I will go back on this point later, but my meaning is that observing an object once is definitely not enough. This survey was limited to the detection of objects with a small inclination with respect to the ecliptic plane, i.e. the orbit of the Earth.

It was then extended by the High Ecliptic Latitude (HiLat) component, which looked for objects with significant inclinations. It examined 701 square degrees of sky ranging from 12° to 85° ecliptic latitude and discovered 24 TNOs, with inclinations between 15° and 104° (from Petit et al., 2017, The Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS) — High-latitude component, The Astronomical Journal, 153:5.

The Pan-STARRS1 survey

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS1) survey operates from Haleakala Observatory, Hawaii, USA since 2010. It is not specifically devoted for TNOs, but for moving objects (asteroids, stars,…), and is particularly known for the discovery of the first known interstellar object, i.e. 1I/’Oumuamua. It discovered 370 new TNOs, but without enough information to securely classify their orbits.

And now comes OSSOS!

The Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS)

OSSOS operated between 2013 and 2017 from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, taking more than 8,000 images. It covered 155 square degrees with a sensitivity up to 25.2. This coverage has been split into 8 blocks, which avoided the Galactic plane. The study I present today is the complete data release, in which 838 objects are given without ambiguity on their orbital classification. This was an international collaboration, involving Canada, UK, France, Taiwan, USA, Finland, Japan, Slovakia,… but also involving different skills, like orbital characterization, astrometry, chemistry, cometary activity, data mining, etc. In other words, it not only aimed at discovering new objects, but also at understanding their orbital dynamics, their physics, and if possible their origin.

In the previous paragraphs I pointed out the difference between discovering an object, and classifying it following its orbit. Let us see that now.

Characterizing a new TNO

As we will see in the next paragraph, the Trans-Neptunian population is composed of different parts, following the orbits of the objects and the perturbations acting on them, i.e. the gravitational attraction of the giant planets. Classifying a newly discovered object requires some accuracy in the determination of its orbit. The following is a summary of how things work.

For an object to be discovered, it must appear on a triplet of images, which cover a timespan of about 2 hours. From it the relative motion of the object on the sky can be evaluated, which would permit to reobserve it. The new observations permit themselves to better constrain the orbit. The OSSOS team announces that an arc of observations of about 16 months is required to have enough confidence in the orbit. In many cases the arc is longer, actually the team tells us that for the 838 classified objects, astrometric measurements have been made over 2 to 5 oppositions. An opposition is the geometric alignment between the Sun, the Earth, and the object.

For an astrometric measurement to be accurate, you need to accurately know the positions of the other objects present on the image. These other objects are stars, which are referenced in astrometric catalogues. The astrometric satellite Gaia is currently performing such a survey. Its Data Release 2 has very recently (April 2018) been released, but this was too late for the present study. So, the authors used the Data Release 1, and the Pan-STARRS 1 catalogue when necessary.

In some cases, objects were lost, i.e. the authors were not able to reobserve it. This may have been due to the lack of accuracy of the orbital determination from the discovery arc, or just because the object left a covered zone.

Before giving you the results, I should tell you something on the structure of the outer Solar System. I mentioned orbital classification above, the classes are coming now.

Structure of the outer Solar System

First, we should make a distinction between resonant and non-resonant orbits.

Resonant orbits are in mean-motion resonance with a planet, which is mostly Neptune. For instance, the 2:1 resonance with Neptune means that Neptune accomplishes two revolutions around the Sun while the object makes exactly one. Such a ratio implies amplified dynamical effects on the object, which may excite its eccentricity or its inclination, destabilize or confine its orbit.

Besides these resonant objects are the non-resonant ones (you guessed it, didn’t you?). They are classified following their orbital elements:

  • Centaurs: they orbit inner to the orbit of Neptune, i.e. their semimajor axis is smaller than 30 AU. As such, they are not TNOs strictly speaking,
  • Inner-belt objects: here the belt is the Kuiper Belt, not to be confused with the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. This objects orbit between the orbit of Neptune and the 3:2 resonance, i.e. the orbit of Pluto, at 39.4 AU.
  • Main-belt objects: between the 3:2 and the 2:1 resonance, i.e. between 39.4 and 47.7 AU.
  • Outer-belt objects: they orbit beyond the 2:1 resonance and have an eccentricity smaller than 0.24.
  • Detached objects: not only they orbit beyond the 2:1 resonance, but also have an eccentricity larger than 0.24. As a consequence, they may have very large semi-major axes, but could be detected since their perihelion distance, i.e. their closest distance to the Sun, is accessible to our terrestrial instruments. This is made possible by their high eccentricity. Among these objects are the eTNOs (e for extreme) mentioned here.

And now the results.

Key results

1,142 TNOs (including Centaurs) are now classified, 838 of them thanks to OSSOS. Among these 838 objects, 313 are resonant, including 132 in the 3:2 resonance, 39 in the 7:4 and 34 in the 2:1, and 525 are non-resonant. 421 of the non-resonant object are in the main belt, i.e. between the 3:2 and the 2:1 resonances.

Among the remarkable other results are

  • There should be about 90,000 detached objects with a diameter larger than 100 km, and probably less than 1,000 so large Centaurs,
  • the inner Kuiper Belt practically starts at 37 AU,
  • the population of low-inclination objects extends to at least 49 AU, but there is a huge concentration of them between 42.5 and 44.5 AU,
  • the inclinations are larger in the 3:2 resonance (the Plutinos) than in the 2:1,
  • securely occupied resonances exist at least up to 130 AU, which is the location of the 9:1 resonance.

The word origins appear in OSSOS. Actually, knowing the distribution of the Kuiper Belt Objects tells us something on the evolution of our Solar System.

Constraining the evolution of the Solar System

A TNO is a small body. This implies that, when perturbed by a giant planet, it just endures the orbital shacking. The consequence is that the giant planets have a strong enough gravitational potential to shape the Kuiper Belt. When perturbed, an object might get inclined, eccentric, be ejected, confined…

There are several competing models of the evolution of the Solar System, which implies migration of the giant planets. When a giant planet migrates, its perturbation migrates as well, and you should see the consequences on the Kuiper Belt. This is how an accurate snapshot of the Kuiper Belt might tell us something on the past of our Solar System, and if you constrain its evolution, then you can be tempted to transpose it to extrasolar systems. Moreover, this could give clues on the Planet Nine…

The OSSOS team provides software, which include a survey simulator, checking the relevance of a predicted model for the Kuiper Belt, when compared to the observations.

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.

Forming Pluto’s satellites

Hi there! A team from the University of Hong Kong has recently explored a scenario of formation of the small satellites of Pluto. You know, there are 4 small bodies, named Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, which orbit around the binary Trans-Neptunian Object Pluto-Charon. At this time, we don’t know yet how they were formed, and how they ended up at their present locations, despite the data that the spacecraft New Horizons sent us recently. The study I present you today, On the early in situ formation of Pluto’s small satellites, by Jason Man Yin Woo and Man Hoi Lee, simulates the early evolution of the Pluto-Charon system. It has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The satellites of Pluto

The American Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. He examined photographic plates taken at Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, USA, and detected a moving object, which thus could not be a star. The International Astronomical Union considered Pluto to be the ninth planet of the Solar System, until 2006. At that time, numerous discoveries of distant objects motivated the creation of the class of dwarf planets, Pluto being one of the largest of them.

The other American astronomer James W. Christy discovered a companion to Pluto, Charon, in June 1978. Still at Flagstaff.

The existence of far objects in our Solar System motivated the launch of the space missions New Horizons in 2006. New Horizons made a close approach of the system of Pluto in July 2015, and is currently en route to the Trans-Neptunian Object 2014MU69. The closest approach is scheduled for January, 1st 2019.

In parallel to the preparation of New Horizons, the scientific team performed observations of Pluto-Charon with the famous Hubble Space Telescope. And they discovered 4 small satellites: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. You can find some of their characteristics below, which are due to New Horizons.

Charon Styx Nix Kerberos Hydra
Discovery 1978 2012 2005 2011 2005
Semimajor axis 17,181 km 42,656 km 48,694 km 57,783 km 64,738 km
Eccentricity 0 0.006 0 0.003 0.006
Inclination 0.8° 0.1° 0.4° 0.2°
Orbital period 6.39 d 20.16 d 24.85 d 32.17 d 38.20 d
Spin period 6.39 d 3.24 d 1.829 d 5.31 d 0.43 d
Mean diameter 1,214 km 10.5 km 39 km 12 km 42 km
Styx seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Styx seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Nix seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Nix seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Kerberos seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Kerberos seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Hydra seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Hydra seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

We should compare these numbers to the ones of Pluto: a mean diameter of 2370 km, and a spin period of 6.39 d. This implies that:

  • Pluto and Charon are two large objects, with respect to the other satellites. So, Pluto-Charon should be seen as a binary TNO, and the other four objects are satellites of the binary.
  • Pluto and Charon are in a state of double synchronous spin-orbite resonance: their rotation rate is the same, and is the same that their mutual orbital motion. If you are on the surface of Pluto, facing a friend of yours on the surface of Charon, you will always face her. This is probably the most stable dynamical equilibrium, reached after dissipation of energy over the ages.

And the four small satellites orbit outside the mutual orbits of Pluto and Charon.

Proximity of Mean-Motion Resonances

We can notice that:

  • the orbital period of Styx is close to three times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Nix is close to four times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Kerberos is close to five times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Hydra is close to six times the one of Charon.

Close to, but not exactly. This suggests the influence of mean-motion resonances of their orbital motion, i.e. the closest distance between Charon and Styx will happen every 3 orbits of Charon at the same place, so you can have a cumulative effect on the orbit. And the same thing would happen for the other objects. But this is actually not that clear whether that cumulative effect would be significant or not, and if yes, how it would affect the orbits. Previous studies suggest that it translates into a tiny zone of stability for Kerberos, provided that Nix and Hydra are not too massive.

Anyway, the authors wondered why these four satellites are currently at their present location.

Testing a scenario of formation

They addressed this question in testing the following scenario: Charon initially impacted Pluto, and the debris resulting from the impact created the four small satellites. To test this scenario, they ran long-term numerical simulations of small, test particles, perturbed by Pluto and Charon. Pluto and Charon were not in the current state, but in a presumed early one, before the establishment of the two synchronous rotations, and with and without a significant initial eccentricity for Charon. The authors simulated the orbital evolution, the system evolving over the action of gravitational mutual interactions, and tides.

The long-term evolution is ruled by tides

The tides are basically the dissipation of energy in a planetary body, due to the difference of force exerted at different points of the body. This results in stress, and is modeled as a tidal bulge, which points to the direction of the perturber. The dissipation of energy is due to the small angular shift between the orientation of the bulge and the direction of the perturber. The equilibrium configuration of Pluto-Charon, i.e. the two synchronous rotations, suggest that the binary is tidally evolved.

The authors applied tides only on Pluto and Charon, and considered two tidal models:

  1. A constant time delay between the tidal excitation and the response of the tidal bulge,
  2. A constant angular shift between the tidal bulge and the direction of the perturber.

The tidal models actually depend on the properties of the material, and the frequency of the excitation. In such a case, the frequency of the excitation depends on the two rotation rates of Pluto and Charon, and on their orbital motions. The properties of the material, in particular the rigidity and the viscosity, are ruled by the temperatures of the objects, which are not necessarily constant in space and in time, since tidal stress tend to heat the object. Here the authors did not consider a time variation of the tidal parameters.

Other models, which are probably more physically realistic but more complex, exist in the literature. Let me cite the Maxwell model, which assumes two regimes for the response of the planetary body: elastic for slow excitations, i.e. not dissipative, and dissipative for fast excitations. The limit between fast and slow is indicated by the Maxwell time, which depends on the viscosity and the rigidity of the object.

Anyway, the authors ran different numerical simulations, with the two tidal models (constant angular shift and constant time delay), with different numbers and different initial eccentricities for Charon. And in all of these simulations, they monitored the fate of independent test particles orbiting in the area.

Possible scenario, but…

The authors seem disappointed by their results. Actually, some of the particles are affected by mean-motion resonances, some other are ejected, but the simulations show that particles may end up at the current locations of Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. However, their current locations, i.e. close to mean-motion resonances, do not appear to be preferred places for formation. This means that we still do not know why the satellites are where they currently are, and not somewhere else.

What’s next?

The next target of New Horizons is 2014MU69, which we will be the first object explored by a spacecraft, which had been launched before the object was known to us. We should expect many data.

The study and its authors

You can find here

  • The study, made freely available by the authors on arXiv, thanks to them for sharing!
  • and the homepage of Man Hoi Lee.

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.

Origin and fate of a binary TNO

Hi there! I have already told you about these Trans-Neptunian Objects, which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. It appears that some of them, i.e. 81 as far as we know, are binaries. As far as we know actually means that there are probably many more. These are in fact systems of 2 objects, which orbit together.

The study I present you today, The journey of Typhon-Echidna as a binary system through the planetary region, by Rosana Araujo, Mattia Galiazzo, Othon Winter and Rafael Sfair, simulates the past and future orbital motion of such a system, to investigate its origin and its fate. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Binary objects

Imagine two bodies, which are so close to each other that they interact gravitationally. You can say, OK, this is the case for the Sun and the planets, for the Earth and the Moon, for Jupiter and its satellites… Very well, but in all of those cases, one body, which we will name the primary, is much heavier than the other ones. This results as small bodies orbiting around the primary. But what happens when the mass ratio between these two bodies is rather close to unity, i.e. when two bodies of similar mass interact? Well, in that case, what we call the barycenter of the system, or the gravity center, is not close to the center of the primary, it is in fact somewhere between the two bodies. And the two bodies orbit around it. We call such a system a binary.

Binary systems may exist at every size. I am not aware of known binary giant planets, and certainly not in the Solar System, but we have binary asteroids, binary stars… and theory even predicts the existence of binary black holes! We will here restrict to binary asteroids (in the present case, binary minor planets may be more appropriate… please forgive me that).

So, you have these two similar bodies, of roughly the same size, which orbit together… their system orbiting around the Sun. A well-known example is the binary Pluto-Charon, which itself has small satellites. Currently some approximately 300 binary asteroids are known, 81 of them in the Trans-Neptunian region. The other ones are in the Main Belt and among the Near-Earth Asteroids. This last population could be the most populated by binaries, not only thanks to an observational bias (they are the easiest ones to observe, aren’t they?), but also because the YORP effect favors the fission of these Near-Earth Asteroids.

Anyway, the binary system we are interested in is located in what the authors call the TNO-Centaurs region.

The TNOs-Centaurs region

The name of that region of the Solar System may seem odd, it is due to a lack of consistency in the literature. Basically, the Trans-Neptunian region is the one beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the Centaurs are the asteroids orbiting between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune. This would be very clear if the orbit of Neptune was a legal border… but it is not. What happens when the asteroid orbits on average beyond Neptune, but is sometimes inside? You have it: some call these bodies TNO-Centaurs. Actually they are determined following two conditions:

  1. The semimajor axis must be larger than the one of Neptune, i.e. 30.110387 astronomical units (AU),
  2. and the distance between the Sun and the perihelion should be below that number, the perihelion being the point of the orbit, which is the closest to the Sun.

The distance between the Sun and the asteroid varies when the orbit is not circular, i.e. has a non-null eccentricity, making it elliptic.

When I speak of the orbit of an asteroid, that should be understood as the orbit of the barycenter, for a binary. And the authors recall us that there are two known binary systems in this TNOs-Centaurs region: (42355) Typhon-Echidna, and (65489) Ceto-Phorcys. Today we are interested by (42355) Typhon-Echidna.

(42355) Typhon-Echidna

(42355) Typhon has been discovered in February 2002 by the NEAT program (Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking). This was a survey operating between 1995 and 2007 at Palomar Observatory in California. It was jointly run by the NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can find below some orbital and characteristics of the binary around the Sun, from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser:

Typhon-Echidna
Semimajor axis 38.19 AU
Eccentricity 0.54
Perihelion 17.57 AU
Inclination 2.43°
Orbital period 236.04 yr

As you can see, the orbit is very eccentric, which explains why the binary is considered to be in this gray zone at the border between the Centaurs and the TNOs.

Discovery of Typhon in Feb. 2002, then known as 2002 CR<sub>46</sub>. © NEAT
Discovery of Typhon in Feb. 2002, then known as 2002 CR<sub>46</sub>. © NEAT

And you can find below the orbital characteristics of the orbit of Echidna, which was discovered in 2006:

Semimajor axis 1580 ± 20 km
Eccentricity 0.507 ± 0.009
Inclination 42° ± 2°
Orbital period 18.982 ± 0.001 d

These data have been taken from Johnston’s Archive. Once more, you can see a very eccentric orbit. Such high eccentricities do not look good for the future stability of the object… and this will be confirmed by this study.

In addition to these data, let me add that the diameters of these two bodies are 162 ± 7 and 89 ±6 km, respectively, Typhon being the largest one. Moreover, water ice has been detected on Typhon, which means that it could present some cometary activity if it gets closer to the Sun.

The remarkable orbit of the binary, which is almost unique since only two binaries are known in the TNOs-Centaurs region, supplemented by the fact it is a binary, motivated the authors to specifically study its long-term orbital migration in the Solar System. In other words, its journey from its past to its death.

It should originate from the TNOs-Centaurs region

For investigating this, the authors started from the known initial conditions of the binary, seen as a point mass. In other words, they considered only one object in each simulation, with initial orbital elements very close to the current ones. They ran in fact 100 backward numerical simulations, differing by the initial conditions, provided they were consistent with our knowledge of them. They had to be in the confidence interval.

In all of these trajectories, the gravitational influence of the planets from Venus to Neptune, and of Pluto, was included. They ran these 100 backward simulations over 100 Myr, in using an adaptive time-step algorithm from the integrator Mercury. I do not want to go too deep in the specific, but keep in mind that this algorithm is symplectic, which implies that it should remain accurate for long-term integrations. An important point is the adaptive time-step: when you run numerical integrations, you express the positions and velocities at given dates. The separation between these dates, i.e. the time-step, depends on the variability of the force you apply. The specificity of the dynamics of such eccentric bodies is that they are very sensitive to close encounters with planets, especially (but not only) the giant ones. In that case, you need a pretty short time-step, but only when you are close to the planet. When you are far, it is more advisable to use a larger time-step. Not only to go faster, but also to prevent the accumulation of round-off errors.

It results from these backward simulations that most of the clones of Typhon are still in the TNOs-Centaurs regions 100 Myr ago.

But the authors also investigated the fate of Typhon!

It should be destroyed before 200 Myr

For that, they used the same algorithm to run 500 forward trajectories. And this is where things may become dramatic: Typhon should not survive. In none of them. The best survivor is destroyed after 163 Myr, which is pretty short with respect to the age of the Solar System… but actually very optimistic.

Only 20% of the clones survive after 20 Myr, and the authors estimate the median survival time to be 5.2 Myr. Typhon is doomed! And the reason for that is the close encounters with the planets. The most efficient killer is unsurprisingly Jupiter, because of its large mass.

Interestingly, 42 of these clones entered the inner Solar System. This is why we cannot exclude a future cometary activity of Typhon: in getting closer to the Sun, it will warm, and the water ice may sublimate.

All of these simulations have considered the binary to be a point-mass. Investigating whether it will remain a binary requires other, dedicated simulations.

Will it remain a binary?

The relevant time-step for a binary is much shorter than for a point mass, just because the orbital period of Typhon around the Sun is 236 years, while the one of Echidna around Typhon is only 19 days! This also implies that a full trajectory, over 200 Myr, will require so many iterations that it should suffer from numerical approximations. The authors by-passed this problem in restricting to the close encounters with planets. When they detected a close encounter in an orbital simulation of Typhon, they ran 12,960 simulations of the orbit of Echidna over one year. Once more, these simulations differ by the initial conditions, here the initial orbital elements of Echidna around Typhon.

The authors concluded that it is highly probable that the binary survived close encounters with planets, as a binary. In other words, if Typhon survives, then Echidna should survive.

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.

2010 JO179: a new, resonant dwarf planet

Hi there! Today I present you the discovery of a Trans-Neptunian Object, you know, these objects which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. And I particularly like that one, since its orbit resonates with the one of Neptune. Don’t worry, I will explain you all this, keep in mind for now that this object is probably one of the most stable. Anyway, this is the opportunity to present you A dwarf planet class object in the 21: 5 resonance with Neptune by M.J. Holman and collaborators. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Trans-Neptunian Objects

The Trans-Neptunians Objects are small bodies, which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune, i.e. with a semimajor axis larger than 30 AU. The first discovered one is the well-known Pluto, in 1930. It was then, and until 2006, considered as the ninth planet of the Solar System. It was the only known TNO until 1992. While I am writing this, 2482 are listed on the JPL small-body database search engine.

The TNOs are often classified as the Kuiper-Belt objects, the scattered disc objects, and the Oort cloud. I do not feel these are official classifications, and there are sometimes inconsistencies between the different sources. Basically, the Kuiper-Belt objects are the ones, which orbits are not too much eccentric, not too inclined, and not too far (even if these objects orbit very far from us). The scattered disc objects have more eccentric and inclined orbits, and these dynamics could be due to chaotic / resonant excitation by the gravitational action of the planets. And the Oort cloud could be seen as the frontier of our Solar System. It is a theoretical cloud located between 50,000 and 200,000 Astronomical Units. Comets may originate from there. Its location makes it sensitive to the action of other stars, and to the Galactic tide, i.e. the deformation of our Galaxy.

The object I present you today, 2010 JO179, could be a scattered disc object. It has been discovered in 2010, thanks to the Pan-STARRS survey.

The Pan-STARRS survey

Pan-STARRS, for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, is a systematic survey of the sky. Its facilities are located at Haleakala Observatory, Hawaii, and currently consist of two 1.8m-Ritchey–Chrétien telescopes. It operates since 2010, and discovered small Solar System objects, the interstellar visitor 1I/’Oumuamua… It observes in 5 wavelengths from infrared to visible.

The Pan-STARRS1 telescope. © Pan-STARRS
The Pan-STARRS1 telescope. © Pan-STARRS

The data consist of high-accuracy images of the sky, containing a huge amount of data. Beyond discoveries, these data permit an accurate astrometry of the object present on the images, which is useful for understanding their motion and determining their orbits. They also allow a determination of the activity of variable objects, i.e. variable stars, a study of their surface from their spectrum in the five wavelengths, and (for instance) the measurement of their rotation. A very nice tool anyway!

Pan-STARRS delivered its first data release in December 2016, while the DR2 (Data Release 2) is scheduled for mid-2018… pretty soon actually.

Among the discovered objects are the one we are interested in today, i.e. 2010 JO179.

Identifying the new object

The first observation of 2010 JO179 dates back from May 2010, and it has been detected 24 times during 12 nights, until July 2016. The detections are made in comparing the Pan-STARRS data from the known objects. Once something unknown appears in the data, leaving what the authors call a tracklet, its motion is extrapolated to predict its position at different dates, to investigate whether it is present on other images, another time. From 3 detections, the algorithm makes a more systematic search of additional tracklets, and in case of positive additional detection, then an orbit is fitted. The orbital characteristics (and other properties) are listed below.

Semimajor axis 78.307±0.009 AU
Eccentricity 0.49781±0.00005
Inclination 32.04342±0.00001 °
Orbital period 6663.757±0.002 yr
Diameter 600-900 km
Absolute magnitude 3.4±0.1

You can notice the high accuracy of the orbital parameters, which almost looks like a miracle for such a distant object. This is due to the number of detections, and the accuracy of the astrometry with Pan-STARRS. Once an object is discovered, you know where it is, or at least where it is supposed to be. Thanks to this knowledge, it was possible to detect 2010 JO179 on data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, taken in New Mexico, and on data from the DECalS survey, taken in Chile. Moreover, 2010 JO179 was intentionally observed with the New Technology Telescope (NTT) in La Silla, Chile.

The spectroscopy (analysis of the reflected light at different wavelengths) of 2010 JO179 revealed a moderately red object, which is common for TNOs.

Measuring its rotation

This is something I have already evoked in previous articles. When you record the light flux reflected by the surface of a planetary body, you should observe some periodic variability, which is linked to its rotation. From the observations, you should extract (or try to) a period, which may not be an easy task regarding the sparsity and the accuracy of the observations.

In using the so-called Lomb-Scargle algorithm, the authors detected two possible periods, which are 30.6324 hours, and 61.2649 hours… i.e. twice the former number. These are best-fits, i.e. you try to fit a sinusoid to the recorded light, and these are the periods you get. The associated amplitudes are variations of magnitude of 0.46 and 0.5, respectively. In other words, the authors have two solutions, they favor the first one since it would imply a too elongated asteroid. Anyway, you can say that twice 30.6324 hours is a period as well, but what we call the spin period is the smallest non-null duration, which leaves the light flux (pretty) invariant. So, the measured spin period of 2010 JO179 is 30.6324 hours, which makes it a slow rotator.

Mean-motion resonances

Let us make a break on the specific case of 2010 JO179 (shall we give it a nickname anyway?), since I would like to recall you something on the mean-motion resonances before.

When two planetary bodies orbit the Sun, they perturb each other. It can be shown that when the ratio of their orbital periods (similarly the ratio of their orbital frequencies) is rational, i.e. is one integer divided by another one, then you are in a dynamical situation of commensurability, or quasi-resonance. A well known case is the 5:2 configuration between Jupiter and Saturn, i.e. Jupiter makes 5 orbits around the Sun while Saturn makes 2. In such a case, the orbital perturbations are enhanced, and you can either be very stable, or have a chaotic orbit, in which the eccentricities and inclinations could raise, the orbit become unpredictable beyond a certain time horizon (Lyapunov time), and even a body be ejected.

Mathematically, an expansion of the so-called perturbing function, or the perturbing mutual gravitational potential, would display a sum of sinusoidal term containing resonant arguments, which would have long-term effects. These arguments would read as pλ1-(p+q)λ2+q1ϖ1+q2ϖ2+q3Ω1+q4Ω2, with q=q1+q2+q3+q4. The subscripts 1 and 2 are for the two bodies (in our case, 1 will stand for Neptune, and 2 for JO 2010179), λ are their mean longitudes, ϖ their longitudes of pericentres, and Ω the longitudes of their ascending nodes.

In a perturbed case, which may happen for high eccentricities and inclinations, resonances involving several arguments may overlap, and induce a chaotic dynamics that could be stable… or not. You need to simulate the long-term dynamics to know more about that.

A resonant long-term dynamics

It appears that Neptune and 2010 JO179 are very close to the 21:5 mean-motion resonance (p=5, q=16). To inquire this, the authors ran 100 numerical simulations of the orbital motion of 2010 JO179, with slightly different initial conditions which are consistent with the uncertainty of the observations, over 700 Myr. And they saw that 2010 JO179 could be trapped in a resonance, with argument 5λ1-21λ2+16ϖ2. In about 25% of the simulations, JO179 remains trapped, which implies that the resonant argument is librating, i.e. bounded, all over the simulation. As a consequence, this suggests that its orbit is very stable, which is remarkable given its very high eccentricity (almost 0.5).

The study and its authors

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Does Neptune have binary Trojans?

Hi there! Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune are known to share their orbits with small bodies, called Trojans. This is made possible by a law of celestial mechanics, which specifies that the points located 60° ahead and behind a planet on its orbit are stable. Moreover, there are many binary objects in the Solar System, but no binary asteroid have been discovered as Trojans of Neptune. This motivates the following study, Dynamical evolution of a fictitious population of binary Neptune Trojans, by Adrián Brunini, which has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In this study, the author wonders under which conditions a binary Trojan of Neptune could survive, which almost means could be observed now.

The coorbital resonance

The coorbital resonance is a 1:1 mean-motion resonance. This means that the two involved bodies have on average the same orbital frequency around their parent one. In the specific case of the Trojan of a planet, these two objects orbit the Sun with the same period, and the mass ratio between them makes that the small body is strongly affected by the planet, however the planet is not perturbed by the asteroid. But we can have this synchronous resonance even if the mass ratio is not huge. For instance, we have two coorbital satellites of Saturn, Janus and Epimetheus, which have a mass ratio of only 3.6. Both orbit Saturn in ~16 hours, but in experiencing strong mutual perturbations. They are stable anyway.

In the specific problem of the restricted (the mass of the asteroid is negligible), planar (let us assume that the planet and the asteroid orbit in the same plane), circular (here, we neglect the eccentricity of the two orbits) 3-body (the Sun, the planet and the asteroid) problem, it can be shown that if the planet and the asteroid orbit at the same rate, then there are 5 equilibriums, for which the gravitational actions of the planet and the Sun cancel out. 3 of them, named L1, L2 and L3, are unstable, and lie on the Sun-planet axis. The 2 remaining ones, i.e. L4 and L5, lag 60° ahead and behind the planet, and are stable. As a consequence, the orbits with small oscillations around L4 and L5 are usually stable, even if the real configuration has some limited eccentricity and mutual inclination. Other stable trajectories exist theoretically, e.g. horseshoe orbits around the point L4, L3 and L5. The denomination L is a reference to the Italian-born French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813), who studied this problem.

The Lagrange points, in a reference frame rotating with Neptune.
The Lagrange points, in a reference frame rotating with Neptune.

At this time, 6,701 Trojans are known for Jupiter (4269 at L4 and 2432 at L5), 1 for Uranus, 1 for the Earth, 9 for Mars, and 17 for Neptune, 13 of them orbiting close to L4.

The Trojans of Neptune

You can find an updated list of them here, and let me gather their main orbital characteristics:

Location Eccentricity Inclination Magnitude
2004 UP10 L4 0.023 1.4° 8.8
2005 TO74 L4 0.052 5.3° 8.3
2001 QR322 L4 0.028 1.3° 7.9
2005 TN53 L4 0.064 25.0° 9.3
2006 RJ103 L4 0.031 8.2° 7.5
2007 VL305 L4 0.060 28.2° 7.9
2010 TS191 L4 0.043 6.6° 8.0
2010 TT191 L4 0.073 4.3° 7.8
2011 SO277 L4 0.015 9.6° 7.6
2011 WG157 L4 0.031 22.3° 7.1
2012 UV177 L4 0.071 20.9° 9.2
2014 QO441 L4 0.109 18.8° 8.3
2014 QP441 L4 0.063 19.4° 9.3
2004 KV18 L5 0.187 13.6° 8.9
2008 LC18 L5 0.079 27.5° 8.2
2011 HM102 L5 0.084 29.3° 8.1
2013 KY18 L5 0.121 6.6° 6.6

As you can see, these are faint bodies, which have been discovered between 2001 and 2014. I have given here their provisional designations, which have the advantage to contain the date of the discovery. Actually, 2004 UP10 is also known as (385571) Otrera, a mythological Queen of the Amazons, and 2005 TO74 has received the number (385695).

Their dynamics is plotted below:

Dynamics of the Trojans of Neptune, at the Lagrangian points L4 and L5 (squares).
Dynamics of the Trojans of Neptune, at the Lagrangian points L4 and L5 (squares).

Surprisingly, the 4 Trojans around L5 are outliers: they are the most two eccentric, the remaining two being among the three more inclined Trojans. Even if the number of known bodies may not be statistically relevant, this suggests an asymmetry between the two equilibriums L4 and L5. The literature has not made this point clear yet. In 2007, a study suggested an asymmetry of the location of the stable regions (here), but the same authors said one year later that this was indeed an artifact introduced by the initial conditions (here). In 2012, another study detected that the L4 zone is more stable than the L5 one. Still an open question… In the study I present today, the author simulated only orbits in the L4 region.

Binary asteroids

A binary object is actually two objects, which are gravitationally bound. When their masses ratio is of the order of 1, we should not picture it as a major body and a satellite, but as two bodies orbiting a common barycenter. At this time, 306 binary asteroids have been detected in the Solar System. Moreover, we also know 14 triple systems, and 1 sextuple one, which is the binary Pluto-Charon and its 4 minor satellites.

The formation of a binary can result from the disruption of an asteroid, for instance after an impact, or after fission triggered by a spin acceleration (relevant for Near-Earth Asteroids, which are accelerated by the YORP effect), or from the close encounter of two objects. The outcome is two objects, which orbit together in a few hours, and this system evolves… and then several things might happen. Basically, it either evolves to a synchronous spin-spin-orbit resonance, i.e. the two bodies having a synchronous rotation, which is also synchronous with their mutual orbit (examples: Pluto-Charon, the double asteroid (90) Antiope), or the two components finally split… There are also systems in which only one of the components rotates synchronously. Another possible end-state is a contact binary, i.e. the two components eventually touch together.

At this time, 4 binary asteroids are known among the Trojans asteroids of Jupiter. None is known for Neptune.

Numerical simulations

The author considered fictitious binary asteroids close to the L4 of Neptune, and propagated the motion of the two components, in considering the planetary perturbations of the planets, over 4.5 Byr, i.e. the age of the Solar System. A difficulty for such long-term numerical studies is the handling of numerical uncertainties. Your numerical scheme includes a time-step, which is the time interval between the simulated positions of the system, i.e. the locations and velocities of the two components of the binary. If your time-step is too large, you will have a mathematical uncertainty in your evaluation. However, if you shorten it, you will have too many iterations, which means a too long calculation time, and the accumulations of round-off errors due to the machine epsilon, i.e. rounding in floating point arithmetic.
A good time step should be a fraction of the shortest period perturbing the system. Neptune orbits the Sun in 165 years, which permits a time step of some years, BUT the period of a binary is typically a few hours… which is too short for simulations over the age of the Solar System. This problem is by-passed in averaging the dynamics of the binary. This means that only long-term effects are kept. In this case, the author focused on the Kozai-Lidov effect, which is a secular (i.e. very long-term) raise of the inclination and the eccentricity. Averaging a problem of gravitational dynamics is always a challenge, because you have to make sure you do not forget a significant contribution.
The author also included the tidal interaction between the two components, i.e. the mutual interaction triggering stress and strain, and which result in dissipation of energy, secular variation of the mutual orbits, and damping of the rotation.
He considered three sets of binaries: two with components of about the same size, these two samples differing by the intensity of tides, and in the third one the binary are systems with a high mass ratio, i.e. consisting of a central body and a satellite.

Survival of the binaries

The authors find that for systems with strong tides, about two thirds of the binaries should survive. The tides have unsurprisingly a critical role, since they tend to make the binary evolve to a stable end-state, i.e. doubly synchronous with an almost circular mutual orbit. However, few systems with main body + satellite survive.

Challenging this model

At this time, no binary has been found among the Trojans of Neptune, but this does not mean that there is none. The next years shall tell us more about these bodies, and once they will be statistically significant, we would be able to compare the observations with the theory. An absence of binaries could mean that they were initially almost absent, i.e. lack of binaries in that region (then we should explain why there are binaries in the Trans-Neptunian population), or that the relevant tides are weak. We could also expect further theoretical studies, i.e. with a more complete tidal dynamics, and frequency-dependent tides. Here, the author assumed a constant tidal function Q, while it actually depends on the rotation rate of the two bodies, which themselves decrease all along the evolution.

So, this is a model assisting our comprehension of the dynamics of binary objects in that region. As such, it should be seen as a step forward. Many other steps are to be expected in the future, observationally and theoretically (by the way, could a Trojan have rings?).

The study and its author

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