Category Archives: Asteroids: Trans-Neptunian Objects

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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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
Inclination
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?

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