Category Archives: Meteors

Saturn sends us meteorites

Hi there! First I would like to thank you for following me on Facebook. The Planetary Mechanics page has reached 1,000 followers!

OK, now back to business. Did you know that our Earth is intensively bombarded from space? You have recently heard of this Chinese space station, Tiangong-1… in that case, it was man-made stuff. But we are intensively bombarded by natural space material. Most of it is so small that it is destroyed when entering the atmosphere, but sometimes it arrives to us as stones… And in extreme cases, the impactor is so large that its impact may generate an extinction event. The Chicxulub crater, in Mexico, is thought to result from the impact, which aftermath provoked the extinction of the dinosaurs, some 66 Myr ago.

The meteorites I speak about today are the ones, which fall on the Earth every year. This is the opportunity to discuss about Identification of meteorite source regions in the Solar System, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus. In that study, the authors determine the origin of 25 meteorites, from their observed trajectories just before they hit us.

Meteorites bombard the Earth

We estimate that currently 60 tons of cosmic material fall on the Earth every day. This seems huge, but actually most of it arrives to us as dust, since the original object does not survive its entry into the atmosphere. In fact, the larger the meteorite, the less frequent it falls on us. 4-m objects arrive every ~16 months, 10-m ones every ~10 years, and 100-m ones every ~5,200 years. And they arrive somewhere on Earth… do not forget that most of the surface of our planet is water. So, don’t worry.

The contact of such a small object with the atmosphere may generate an airburst, which itself could be detected, in many frequencies. I mean, you may hear it, you may see it (make a wish), it can also disturb the radio emissions. This motivated the existence of several observation programs, dedicated to the detection of meteors.

Observation networks

Programs of observation exist at least since 1959, originally under the impulse of Ondřejov Observatory (Czech Republic). These are usually national programs, e.g.

and there are probably more. These are networks of camera, which systematically record the sky, accumulating data which are then automatically treated to detect meteors. The detection of a meteors from different location permit to determine its trajectory.

Detection of a fireball by FRIPON, in September 2016. © FRIPON
Detection of a fireball by FRIPON, in September 2016. © FRIPON

Identifying the source

As I said, multiple detections, at different locations, of a fireball, permit to derive its trajectory. This trajectory gives in particular the radiant, which is the direction from which the meteorite, or the impactor, seems to come. The authors are also interested in the velocity of the object.

The velocity and the radiant are determined with respect to the Earth. Once they are determined, the authors translated them into heliocentric elements, i.e. they determined the pre-impact trajectory of the object with respect to the Sun. And this makes sense, since Solar System objects orbit the Sun! This trajectory is made of orbital elements, i.e. semimajor axis, eccentricity, inclination, and the uncertainties associated. Don’t forget that the observations have an accuracy, which you must consider when you use the data. The magnitude of the fireball tells us something on the size of the impactor as well.

From these data, the authors wondered from where the object should come from.

7 candidates as reservoirs of meteorites

The authors identified 7 possible sources for these impactors. These regions are the densest parts of the Main Asteroid Belt.
These are:

  1. the Hungaria family. These asteroids have a semimajor axis between 1.78 and 2 astronomical units, and an inclination between 16° and 34° with respect to the ecliptic, i.e. the orbit of the Earth,
  2. the ν6 resonance: these are bodies, which eccentricity raise because excited by Saturn. They orbit at a location, where they are sensitive to the precessional motion of the pericentre of Saturn. The raise of their eccentricity make these bodies unstable, and good candidates for Earth-crossers. Their semimajor axis is slightly smaller than 2 AU.
  3. the Phocaea family: this is a collisional family of stony asteroids. Their semimajor axes lie between 2.25 and 2.5 AU, their eccentricities are larger than 0.1, and their inclinations are between 18° and 32°. They are known to be a source of Mars-crossers.
  4. the 3:1 MMR (mean-motion resonance with Jupiter): these bodies perform exactly 3 orbits around the Sun while Jupiter makes one. They lie at 2.5 AU. The perturbation by Jupiter tends to empty this zone, which is called a Kirkwood gap.
  5. the 5:2 MMR, at 2.82 AU. This is another Kirkwood gap.
  6. the 2:1 MMR, at 3.27 AU, also known as Hecuba gap,
  7. the Jupiter Family Comets. These are comets, which orbital periods around the Sun are shorter than 20 years, and which inclinations are smaller than 30° with respect to the ecliptic. They are likely to be significantly perturbed by Jupiter.

For each of the 25 referenced meteorites, the authors computed the probability of each of these regions to be the source, in considering the orbital elements (semimajor axis, eccentricity, and inclination) and the magnitude of the object. Indeed, the magnitude is correlated with the size, which is itself correlated with the material constituting it. The reason is that these Earth-crossers orbit the Sun on eccentric orbits, and at their pericentre, i.e. the closest approach to the Sun, they experience tides, which threaten their very existence. In other words, they might be disrupted. Particularly, a large body made of weak material cannot survive.

And now, the results!

Saturn send meteorites to the Earth!

The authors find that the most probable source for the meteorites is the ν6 secular resonance, i.e. with Saturn. In other words, Saturn sends meteorites to the Earth! Beside this, the Hungaria family and the 3:1 mean-motion resonance with Jupiter are probable sources as well. On the contrary, you can forget the Phocaea family and the 2:1 MMR as possible sources.
It appears that the inner belt is more likely to be the source of meteorites than the outer one. Actually, the outer belt mostly contains carbonaceous asteroids, which produce weak meteoroids.

The authors honestly recall that previous studies found similar results. Theirs also contains an analysis of the influence of the uncertainty on the trajectories, and of the impact velocity with the Earth. This influence appears to be pretty marginal.

Anyway, the future will benefit from more data, i.e. more detections and trajectory recoveries. So, additional results are to be expected, just be patient!

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here, on the website of Icarus. This study is in open access, which means that the authors paid extra fees to make the study available to us. Many thanks to them!
  • You can visit here the website of Mikael Granvik, the first author of the study,
  • and the one of the second author, Peter Brown.

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.

A quest for sources of meteor showers

Hi there! Today I will present you a study entitled Dynamical modeling validation of parent bodies associated with newly discovered CMN meteor showers, by D. Šegon, J. Vaubaillon, P. Gural, D. Vida, Ž. Andreić, K. Korlević & I. Skokić, which has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics. It addresses the following question: when you see meteors, where do they come from?

The meteor showers

Imagine you have a comet, i.e. a small body, which wanders in the Solar System with a large eccentricity. This means that it orbits around the Sun, but with large variations of its distance with the Sun. The consequence is that it experiences large variations of temperature during its journey. In particular, when it reaches the perihelion, i.e. when its distance to the Sun is the smallest, the temperature is so hot that it outgasses. The result is the ejection of a cloud of small particles, which itself wanders in the Solar System, on its own orbit.

When the Earth meets it, then these particles are burnt in our atmosphere. This results in meteor showers. Such showers can be sporadic, or happen every year if the cloud is pretty static with respect to the orbit of the Earth. The body from which the particles originate is called the parent body. The study I present you today aims at identifying the parent body of some of these meteor showers.

How to observe them

Understanding the meteor showers is an issue for the safety of the Earth environment, particularly our artificial satellites. Some meteors can even impact the surface of the Earth. This is why numerous observation programs exist, and for that amateurs are very helpful!

The first way to observe meteor showers is visually. When you know that meteor showers are likely to happen, you look at the sky and take note of the meteors you see: when you saw it, from where, where it came from, its magnitude (~its brightness), etc. The point from where the meteor seems to come is called the radiant. It is written as a set of two angles α and δ, i.e. right ascension and declination, which localize it on the celestial sphere.

For unpredicted showers, we can use cameras, which continually observe and record the sky. Then, algorithms of image processing can detect the meteor. Meteors can also be detected in the radio wavelengths.

Dynamical modeling

If you want to simulate the orbit of a particle, you have to consider:

  • the location of the parent body when the particle was ejected (initial position),
  • the ejection velocity,
  • the ejection time, likely when the parent body was close to its perihelion. The question how close? cannot be accurately answered,
  • the gravitational action of the Sun and the planets of the Solar System,
  • the non-gravitational forces, which might have a strong effect on such small bodies.

These non-gravitational forces, here the Poynting-Robertson drag, are due to the Solar radiation, which causes a loss of angular momentum of the particle during its orbital journey around the Sun. It is significant for particles smaller than the centimeter, which is often the case for such ejecta.

You cannot simulate the orbit of a specific particle that you would have identified before, just because they are too small to be observed as individuals. However, you can simulate a cloud, composed of a synthetic population of fictitious particles, with various sizes, ejection times, initial velocities… in such a way that your resulting cloud will have global properties which are close to the real cloud of ejecta. Then you can simulate the evolution of the cloud with time, and in particular determine the time, duration, direction, and intensity of a meteor shower.

Simulating such a cloud reveals interesting dynamical features. It presents an initial size, because of the variations in the ejection times of the particles. But it also widens with time, since the particles present different ejection velocities. This usually (but not always!) results in a kind of a tire which enshrouds the whole orbit of the parent body. Unfortunately, it can be observed only when the Earth crosses it. So, simulating the behavior of the cloud will tell you when the Earth crosses it, how long the crossing lasts, and the density of the cloud during the crossing.
It should be kept in mind that a cloud is composed of a hyue number of particles. For this reason, dedicated computation means are required.

This study

This study aims at identifying the parent body of meteor showers, which were detected by the Croatian Meteor Network (CMN in the title). For that, the first step is to make sure that a shower is a shower.
The detected meteors should resemble enough, which can be measured with the D-criteria, that are a measurement of a distance, in a given space, between the orbits of two objects. Once a meteor shower is identified, the same D-criteria can be used to try to identify the parent body, from its orbit. The parent bodies are comets or asteroids, they are usually known enough for candidates to be determined. And once candidates are identified, then their outgassing is simulated, to predict the meteor showers associated. If a calculated meteor shower is close enough to an observed one, then it is considered that the parent body has been successfully identified. This last close enough is related to the time and duration of the showers, and the location of the radiants.

The authors analyzed 13 meteor showers, and successfully identified the parent body for 7 of them. Here is their list, the showers are identified under their IAU denominations:

  • #549FAN – 49 Andromedids comes from the comet 2001 W2 Batters,
  • #533 JXA – July ξ Arietids comes from the comet 1964 N1 Ikeya,
  • #539 ACP – α Cepheids comes from the comet 255P Levy,
  • #541 SSD – 66 Draconids comes from the asteroid 2001 XQ,
  • #751 KCE – κ Cepheids comes from the asteroid 2009 SG18,
  • #753 NED – November Draconids comes from the asteroid 2009 WN25,
  • #754 POD – ψ Draconids comes from the asteroid 2008 GV.

For this last stream, the authors acknowledge that another candidate parent body has not been investigated: the asteroid 2015 FA118.

For the 6 other cases, either the identification of a parent body is speculated but not assessed enough, or just no candidate has been hinted, possibly because it is an asteroid or a comet which has not discovered yet, and / or because data are missing on the meteor shower.

Some links

That’s it for today! As usual, I accept any comment, feel free to post!