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RIP Arecibo

Hi there! I am happy to write this new blog post. I did not write for a while. Actually, I am proudly Associate Editor of Astronomy & Astrophysics. I love this job, but this fills my week-ends, and during the week days I work as an Assistant Professor at the University of Franche-Comté, Besançon, France. So, this leaves me very few time for blogging. Anyway, I wanted to emphasize the loss of the radiotelescope of Arecibo.

The National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center was a 305 m-wide radiotelescope, which explored the sky since November 1963 from Arecibo, Puerto Rico. It was the largest filled-aperture radiotelescope in the world until 2016, when it was surpassed by the Chinese radiotelescope FAST. It was composed of a spherical reflector, i.e. a collecting dish, three radar transmitters, and a receiver on a platform suspended 150 m above the dish by 18 cables running from three reinforced concrete towers.
These cables suffered several damages, which led the decommissioning of the telescope in November 2020. It appeared that trying to repair it was too dangerous, because other cables could break at any time and damage the structure. This actually happened on Dec, 1st, triggering the fall of the receiver platform.

This is of course a great loss for observational astronomy. Shortly after its first light, Arecibo measured the spin rate of Mercury, giving evidence of its 3:2 spin-orbit resonance. So far, Mercury is the only known planetary object in this resonance, i.e. its rotation period (58 days) is exactly two-thirds of its revolution period (88 days).
Arecibo also discovered the first binary pulsar, in 1974, and permiited to image Near-Earth Asteroids. It also collected data for the SETI project (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence),
and was used to send a message to potential extraterrestrial civilizations in 1974.

You can try to save the radiotelescope anyway, in signing the petition. Beside this, interesting observations will be made by the Chinese radiotelescope FAST. So, we cannot say there is nothing, FAST is a wonderful instrument, but the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center would have taken its share of the pressure for observing.

Merry Christmas.

Reorienting a non-rigid body

Hi there! Today’s post deals with the following problem: Imagine you have a planetary body, in the Solar System, which orbits either the Sun or a massive planet. This body has its own rotation. And, for some reason, for instance a mass anomaly, its orientation changes dramatically. This is a pretty complex problem when the body is not rigid, i.e. its shape is not constant. This problem is addressed in A numerical method for reorientation of rotating tidally deformed visco-elastic bodies, by a Dutch team of the University of Delft, composed of Haiynag Hu, Wouter van der Wal, and Bert Vermeersen. This paper has recently been published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Shaping a planetary body

The main difficulty of the problem comes from the fact that the involved body is not rigid, i.e. its shape might change.
Beside a catastrophic event like an impact, 2 physical effects are likely to shape a planetary body: its rotation, and the tides.
The deformation due to the rotation is easy to understand. Imagine a body which rotates about one axis. The centrifugal force will tend to repel the masses, especially at the equator, creating a symmetric polar flattening.
The tides are the differential gravitational attraction created by a massive object, on every mass element of the involved body. Not only that would result in a loss of energy because of the internal frictions created by the tides, but that would also alter its shape. If the body has a rotation rate which has no obvious connection with its orbital rate around its parent body, which would be the Sun for a planet, or a planet for a satellite, then the tidal deformation essentially results in an oscillatory, quasi-periodic variation of the shape. However, if the body has a rotation which is synchronous with its orbit, as it is the case for many planetary satellites (the Moon shows us always the same face), then the tides would raise a permanent equatorial bulge, pointing to the massive perturber. Consequently, the satellite would be triaxial.
When there is no remnant deformation, for instance due to a mass anomaly, then the shape of the satellite is rendered by the so-called hydrostatic equilibrium.
The intensity of the deformation is given by Love numbers, the h number being related to the shape, and the k number to the gravity field. The most commonly used is the second-order Love number k2, which is the lowest-order relevant Love number. It permits to render the triaxiality of a synchronous body.

All this means that, when a satellite or a planet undergoes a brutal reorientation, then its shape is altered. Modeling this transition is challenging.

The True Polar Wander in the Solar System

Several Solar System bodies are thought to have undergone Polar Wander in the past. The reason for that is, when a mass anomaly is created, for instance due to a collision, or because of the liquefaction of water ice in the body, then the shape of the body, i.e. its mass balance, does not match with its rotation and the undergone tides anymore. The natural response is then a reorientation, which is accompanied by reshaping, since the body is not rigid.

Clues of Polar Wander are present in the Solar System, such as

  • Enceladus presents a subsurface water diapir at its South Pole. Since this is an equilibrium configuration, the diapir has probably been created at another orientation, and then Enceladus was out of balance, and reoriented,
  • the orientation of Sputnik Planitia on Pluto, which is aligned with the direction Pluto-Charon, can result from reorientation, since Sputnik Planitia corresponds to a mass anomaly,
  • a past Polar Wander is suspected for Mars, from the presence of similar volatiles elements at the equator and at the poles, from the distribution of the impact basins, and from the magnetic field,
  • Polar Wander has been proposed to explain the retrograde rotation of Venus.

Modeling the dynamics of True Polar Wander for a visco-elastic body is a true challenge, one of the issues being: how do you model the evolution of the orientation and of the shape simultaneously?

Some approximations have been proposed in the past to answer this question:

  • the quasi-fluid approximation: the shape if the body is supposed to relax almost instantaneously, i.e. over a timescale, which is very fast with respect to the timescale of the reorientation,
  • the small angles approximation (linear true polar wander): the reorientation angle is assumed to be small enough, so that the equations ruling the rotation of the body can be linearized, which makes them much easier to solve. Of course, this does not work for large reorientation angles,
  • the equilibrium approximation: the idea is here to not try to simulate the process of True Polar Wander, but only its outcome. This would assume that the reorientation is now finished, and the shape is relaxed. But we cannot be sure that the bodies we observe are in this new equilibrium state.

The study I present here is the first paper of a series, which aims at going beyond these approximations, to criticize their validity, and to be more realistic on the evolution of the involved Solar System bodies. Before presenting its results, I will briefly present the Finite Elements Method (FEM).

Numerical computation with finite elements

In such a problem, you have to model both the orientation of the rotation axis of the body, which depends on the time, and the distribution of masses in the body, which are interconnected to each others and are ruled by the centrifugal and tidal forces. This would result in a time-dependent tensor of inertia. This is basically a 3×3 matrix, which contains all the information on the mass repartition.
For that, a common way is to split the body into finite elements, i.e. split its volume into small volume elements, and propagate the deformations from one to another. Proceeding this way is far from easy, since it is very time-consuming, and the accuracy is a true issue. It is tempting to reduce the size of the volume elements to improve the accuracy, which should work… until they are too small and generate too many numerical errors. Moreover, smaller elements means more elements, and a longer computation time… In this study, the authors borrow the finite elements solver from a commercial software.

This study

To test these approximations, the authors propose 3 algorithms:

  • Algorithm 1, suitable for small-angle polar wander without addressing its cause,
  • Algorithm 2, suitable for large-angle polar wander without addressing its cause,
  • Algorithm 3, which models the response to a mass anomaly.

Comparing the Algorithms 1 with 2 and 1 with 3 tests the limit of the small-angle approximation, while comparing 2 and 3 tests the validity of the quasi-fluid approximation. And here are the results:

  • the small angles approximations (linear theory) gives the worst results when the cause of the mass anomaly causing the reorientation is close to the equator or to one of the poles,
  • the quasi-fluid approximation is reliable only when the body is close to its final state, i.e. equilibrium rotation and relaxed shape.

More results are to be expected, since the authors announce to be working on the effects of lateral heterogeneity on True Polar Wander.

Some links

That’s all for today. Please feel free to comment, to follow the Planetary Mechanics Blog on Twitter (@planetmechanix), and to subscribe to the RSS feed.

The first release of Gaia astrometric data

Hi there! Today is a little bit different, since I will tell you about positions of stars in the sky. WTF??? No Solar System today? Well, actually this is very useful for studying the Solar System. This deals with astrometry, which tells you where your object is.
Another difference with the usual business is that I do not present you a paper, but a series of paper. I have counted 6 papers related to this first release of Gaia data, i.e. the Gaia DR1, for Gaia Data Release 1. They will be published soon in Astronomy and Astrophysics, and some of them are freely available on arXiv. The Gaia Data Release 1 was made available online on Sept, 14th.

Why astrometry?

When you want to study Solar System objects, you need to know where they are, especially if you study their orbital motion, but not only. For that, you use stars as fixed enough reference points, with respect to which you will locate your planetary object of interest. Actually, the stars have some motion with respect to the observer. They have their proper motion, since our galaxy is moving, and a parallax effect, which is a consequence of the motion of the Earth. If you observe something that does not move while you are moving, you will see an apparent motion. This motion will be all the more significant that the object is closer. These problems motivate the use of even further objects, the quasars, with respect to which the stars will be located. These quasars, for quasi-stellar radio-sources, are actually galaxies with an active nucleus. As galaxies, they are further from us than the observed stars, which belong to our galaxy. Moreover, they are brighter, which make them ideal reference points for defining reference frames, in which the stars will be positioned.

One of the goals of the Gaia mission is to elaborate the most accurate and exhaustive catalog giving the positions of stars.

The first space experiment devoted to high precision astrometry was Hipparcos, for High precision parallax collecting satellite. It was made by the European Space Agency (ESA), launched in 1989, and has operated until 1993. It could detect light sources until the magnitude 12.5. It resulted in 3 catalogs: Hipparcos, Tycho-1 and Tycho-2.

The Hipparcos catalog was constituted of 118,218 entries, giving astrometric and photometric data for almost all of them. The astrometric data were composed of 6 elements: right ascension and declination, which locate the object on the sky, the parallax, which is related to its distance, the proper motion in right ascension and declination, and its radial velocity, i.e. the time variation of its distance.

A more extensive analysis of the stars detected by Hipparcos resulted in 2 more comprehensive catalogs, Tycho-1 and Tycho-2, constituted of respectively 1,058,332 and 2,539,913 entries. Tycho-2 was the most accurate catalog we disposed on until this first release of Gaia data. It gives astrometric data at the mean date J1991.25.

Gaia is an astrometric satellite made by ESA and launched in December 2013. It orbits close to the Lagrange point L2 of the Sun-Earth system. This means that it lies between the Sun and the Earth, at a distance of 1.5 millions km from the Earth, and that its orbit is very stable, since the gravitational attraction of the Earth balances the one of the Sun, at that place. This pretty limited distance from the Earth allows a high rate of data transmission (40 Gbyte / day). From that place, Gaia makes systematic scans of the sky during its 5-years operational phase, which has started on July 25th 2014. It is composed of 2 telescopes with a very stable angle between them, and the whole sky shall be observed 70 times during the 5-years nominal mission.

Gaia can detect light sources up to the magnitude 20. This will permit the discovery of unknown Solar System objects, like asteroids or comets, but also of exoplanets. The discovery of a supernova, named Gaia14aaa, has been announced in September 2014. Moreover, the accurate determination of the proper motion of the stars shall give us an accurate picture of the motion of our galaxy, and permit a better knowledge of the position of the stars in the past and in the future. This shall help to redetermine astrometric position of Solar System objects on old astrometric planets, and so refine their orbital ephemerides, as proposed by the NAROO (New Astrometric Reduction of Old Observations) project.

The Data Release 1

The Data Release 1 has been released on Sep, 14th 2016. It contains positions of more than one billion of stars brighter than magnitude 20.7, and proper motion and parallaxes of about 2 millions of stars, which are the Tycho-2 objects. These numbers are given at the date J2015.0. The data are based on the first 14 months of the operational phase, and they should be seen as very preliminary results.

This release is of high importance, since it represents a major improvement with respect to the catalog Tycho-2, and shows the efficiency of Gaia. We could thus be very confident in the accuracy of the future releases.

In the future

This Data Release 1 is just the first release. Others will come, in which the astrometric data will be accompanied by photometric data. The Data Release 2 is planned for summer 2017, the releases 3 and 4 for 2018 and 2019 respectively, while the final one should come in 2022. This final release shall also include discoveries of Jupiter-like planets out of our Solar System.

At the end, Gaia shall have an astrometric accuracy of 25 micro-arcseconds at the magnitude 15, while Hipparcos reached 1 milli-arcsecond. Reaching such an accuracy is a challenge. For that, the timing must be extremely precise, and second-order relativistic effect of the deviation of the light by the Earth and other object must be considered.

Regarding the parallaxes, i.e. the distance: Hipparcos has given us the parallaxes of 60,000 objects with an accuracy of 20%, while the Gaia Data Release 1 gives us the same information, with the same accuracy, for 1 million objects. The Final Release shall give us 10 millions of parallaxes with an accuracy of 1%, 150 millions of them with an accuracy of 10%, 280 millions of them with an accuracy of 20%. Knowing the distances of stars with such a precision will permit major improvements in the understanding of star clusters and in the structure of the Milky Way.


Some links


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