Tag Archives: Impacts

The activity of Chiron

Hi there! You may have heard of Chiron, which was he first Centaur discovered, in 1977. This minor planet may have rings, and seems to present some cometary activity, which cause needs to be discussed. This is the topic of the present study, i.e. Activity of (2060) Chiron possibly caused by impacts?, by Stefan Cikota, Estela Fernández-Valenzuela, Jose Luis Ortiz, Nicolás Morales, René Duffard, Jesus Aceituno, Aleksandar Cikota and Pablo Santos-Sanz. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Chiron’s facts

Chiron was the first discovered Centaur, i.e. the first asteroid / small planet, which orbits between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. It was discovered in 1977, in the sense that it was identified in 1977. But reexamination of past photographic plates show that it has in fact been observed since 1895. And from the reanalysis of the pre-discovery observations, it was easy to determine an orbit.

Discovery 1977
First observation 1895
Apparent magnitude 19
Absolute magnitude 6
Diameter 220 km
Semimajor axis 13.648 AU
Eccentricity 0.3823
Inclination 6.9497°
Orbital period 50.42 yr
Rotation 5.918 h

The orbital period of Chiron is a slightly longer than 50 years, which means that we dispose of astrometric observations over more than 2 periods. This orbit is highly eccentric, which results in large variations of the distance to the Sun, i.e. between 8.43 AU (astronomical units) at perihelion, and 18.86 AU at aphelion.

A spectral analysis of Chiron reveals a C-type, i.e. a carbonaceous, object. Moreover, it shows large variations of brightness, which are considered to be partly due to cometary activity, and partly due to rings. This cometary activity makes that Chiron, officially the asteroid (2060)Chiron, can also be called the comet 95P/Chiron.

Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura
Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura

The presence of rings around Chiron is not unanimously accepted in the scientific community. Unexpected stellar occultations by something orbiting close to Chiron could be interpreted either as cometary jets, or as rings. But the large variations of brightness and the discoveries of rings around Chariklo and Haumea speak for the presence of rings. The discovery of rings around Chariklo was very surprising, and showed that it is possible. The discovery around Haumea has shown that rings around such bodies were not exceptional. So, why not Chiron? In this study, the authors clearly state that they believe in the presence of rings, and they use it to study the brightness of Chiron. These rings would have a radius of 324 ± 10 km, which is inside the estimated Roche limit of Chiron, i.e. the particles constituting the rings could not accrete into a larger body.

But the central point is the cometary activity, i.e. evidence for cometary jets is reported.

Triggering a cometary activity

Classical comets behave this way: these are dirty snowballs, i.e. made of ice, dust, and some other elements. When approaching the Sun, the comet gets so warm that the ice is sublimated. But a Centaur with cometary activity is different, since it does not get closer to the Sun. Moreover, Chiron is essentially carbonaceous. So, another cause has to be found. And in such a case, it is often tempting to invoke impacts.

A problem is that impacts are not that frequent in that region of the Solar System. First because the gravitational action of the Sun tends to focus the orbits of the potential impactors, i.e. they will be more inclined to get closer to the Sun, and second because, the more distant from the Sun you are, the emptier the space appears, this is just a geometrical effect.
The consequences of these effects is that a collision of a 1km-radius comet is expected on a body like Chiron every 60 Gyr… while the age of the Solar System is 4.5 Gyr… quite unlikely.

Photometric observations

Anyway, Chiron is known to have some cometary activity, and the author tracked it from Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA) in Almeria, Spain, during 3 observation campaigns, between 2014 and 2016. The first campaign was primarily devoted to the study of the rotation of Chiron, and consisted of 3 runs in 2014, using the 3.5 and the 1.23 m telescopes. The second campaign was conducted in September 2015 on the 2.2 m telescope, with the CAFOS instrument (Calar Alto Faint Object Spectrograph), and looked for rotation, absolute magnitude, and cometary activity. The third campaign took place on 2016, September 2, to get a better constraint on Chiron’s absolute magnitude, once again with CAFOS.

The authors were particularly interested in the photometry, since cometary jets translate into variations of brightness. For that, they had to correct the variations due to observational constraints, and to the orientation of Chiron.

The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal
The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal

Observational constraints are likely to give artificial variations of photometry, since

  • the height of Chiron on the horizon varies, which means that the thickness of the atmosphere varies,
  • the wind might result in unstable images (seeing),
  • the detectors are different, even on the same instrument,etc.

To try to make things as proper as possible, the authors corrected the images from flat fielding, i.e. from the variations of the response of the CCD chip, and they observed a large enough field (at least 16 arcmin), to have the same stars as photometric references.

Regarding the orientation of Chiron, variations of brightness can reveal:

  • the rotation of Chiron, which would present different surface elements to the observer,
  • the orientation of the rings.

These two effects were modeled, to be removed from the photometric measurements. And the result is…

Impacts from the rings

The authors do observe a small cometary activity on Chiron, which is pretty faint. It has actually been stronger in the past, a measurement in 1973 showed a peak with respect to another measurement in 1970, and since then the coma is monotonously decreasing. The authors interpret that as a possible small impact having occurred between 1970 and 1973, the associated coma tail having almost disappeared. This activity appears to be supplemented by a continuous micro-activity, which could be due to impacts by small particles falling from the rings.

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.

Ice on Mercury

Hi there! You know Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System. It has recently been explored during 4 years by the American spacecraft MESSENGER, which gave us invaluable data on its surface, its magnetic field, its interior…
Today I present you a study on the ice on Mercury. It is entitled Constraining the thickness of polar ice deposits on Mercury using the Mercury Laser Altimeter and small craters in permanently shadowed regions, by Ariel N. Deutsch, James W. Head, Nancy L. Chabot & Gregory A. Neumann, and has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.
We know that there is some ice at the surface of Mercury, and the study wonders how much. Since Mercury is close to the Sun, its surface is usually hot enough to sublimate the ice… except in permanently shadowed regions, i.e. in craters. For that, the authors compared the measured depth of small craters, and compared it with the expected depth from the excavation of material by an impactor. The difference is supposed to be ice deposit.

Mercury and MESSENGER

The planet Mercury is known at least since the 14th century BC. It was named after the Roman messenger god Mercurius, or Hermes in Greek, since the messengers saw it at dawn when they left, and at dusk when they arrived. The reason is that Mercury is in fact pretty close to the Sun, i.e. three times closer than our Earth. So, usually the Sun is so bright that it prevents us from observing it. Unless it is below the horizon, which happens at dawn and at dusk.

Mercury makes a full revolution around the Sun in 88 days, and a full rotation in 58 days. This 2/3 ratio is a dynamical equilibrium, named 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which has been reached after slow despinning over the ages. This despinning is indeed a loss of energy, which has been favored by the tidal (gravitational) action of the Sun. This resulting spin-orbit resonant configuration is a unique case in the Solar System. A consequence is that the Solar day on Mercury lasts 176 days, i.e. if you live on Mercury, the apparent course of the Sun in the sky lasts 176 days.

The proximity of the Sun makes Mercury a challenge for exploration. Mariner 10 made 3 fly-bys of it in 1974-1975, mapping 45% of its surface, and measuring a tiny magnetic field. We had to wait until 2011 for the US spacecraft MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) to be the first human-made object inserted into orbit around Mercury. The orbital phase lasted 4 years, and gave us a full map of the planet, gravity data, accurate measurements of its rotation, a list of craters, measurements of the magnetic field,…

The instrument of interest today is named MLA, for Mercury Laser Altimeter. This instrument used an infrared laser (wavelength: 1,064 nanometers) to estimate the height of the surface from the reflection of the laser: you send a laser signal, you get it back some time later, and from the time you have the distance, since you know the velocity, which is the velocity of the light. And in applying this technique all along the orbit, you produce a map of the whole planet. This permits for instance to estimate the size and depth of the craters.

The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).
The Mercury Laser Altimeter (MLA).

Ice on Mercury

The discovery of ice at the poles of Mercury was announced in 1992. It was permitted by Earth-based radar imagery made at Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in the Mojave desert, in California (USA). Ice is pretty easy to uncover, because of its high reflectivity. But this raises some questions:

  1. How can ice survive on Mercury?
  2. How much ice is there?
  3. How did it arrive?
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google
The Goldstone facilities in 2018. © Google

The first question is not really a mystery. Because of its long Solar day and its absence of atmosphere (actually Mercury has a very tenuous exosphere, but we can forget it), Mercury experiences huge variations of temperature between day and night, i.e. from 100K to 700K, or -173°C to 427°C, or -279°F to 801°F (it is in fact not accurate at the 1°F level…). So, when a region is illuminated, the water ice is definitely not stable. However, there are regions, especially at the poles, which are never illuminated. There ice can survive.

The last two questions are answered by this study.

Ice is still present in craters

For not being illuminated, it helps to be close to a pole, but the topography can be helpful as well. The surface of Mercury is heavily cratered, and the bottoms of some of these craters are always hidden from the Sun. This is where the authors looked for ice. More precisely, they investigated 10 small craters within 10 degrees of the north pole. And for each of them, they estimated the expected depth from the diameter, and compared it with the measured depth. If it does not match, then you have water ice at the bottom. Easy, isn’t it?

The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA
The Carolan crater, one of the craters studied. © NASA

Well, it is not actually that easy. The question is: did the water ice arrive after or before the excavation of the crater? If it arrived before, then the impactor just excavated some ice, and the measurements do not tell you anything.

Another challenge is to deal with the uncertainties. MLA was a wonderful instrument, with an accuracy smaller than the meter. Very well. But you are not that accurate if you want to predict the depth of a crater from its diameter. The authors used an empirical formula proposed by another study: d=(0.17±0.04)D0.96±0.11, where d is the depth, and D the diameter. The problem is the ±, i.e. that formula is not exact. This uncertainty is physically relevant, since the depth of the crater might depend on the incidence angle of the impact, which you don’t know, or on the material at the exact location of the impact… and this is a problem, since you cannot be that accurate on the theoretical depth of the crater. The authors provide a numerical example: a 400-m diameter crater has an expected depth between 21.2 and 127.7 m… So, there is a risk that the thickness of ice that you would measure would be so uncertain that actual detection would be unsure. And this is what happens in almost of all the craters. But the detection is secured by the fact that several craters are involved: the more data you have, the lower the uncertainties. And the ice thickness derived from several craters is more accurate than the one derived from a single crater.

Results: how much ice?

And the result is: the ice thickness is 41+30-14m. The uncertainty is large, but the number remains positive anyway, which means that the detection is positive! Moreover, it is consistent with previous studies, from the detection of polar ice with Goldstone facilities, to similar studies on other regions of Mercury. So, there is ice on Mercury.
An extrapolation of this result suggests that the total mass of water ice on the surface of Mercury is “1014-1015 kg, which is equivalent to ~100-1,000 km3 ice in volume, assuming pure water ice with no porosity” (quoted from the study).

The origin of ice

Mercury is a dense planet, i.e. too dense for such a small planet. It is widely accepted that Mercury as we see it constituted a core of a proto-Mercury, which has been stripped from its mantle of lighter elements. Anyway, Mercury is too dense for the water ice to originate from it. It should come from outside, i.e. it has been brought by impactors. The authors cite studies stating that such a quantity could have been brought by micrometeorites, by Jupiter-family comets, and even by a single impactor.

Another spacecraft soon

Such a study does not only exploit the MESSENGER data, but is also a way to anticipate the future measurements by Bepi-Colombo. This mission will be constituted of two orbiters, one supervised by the European Space Agency (ESA), and the other one by the Japanese agency JAXA. Bepi-Colombo should be launched in October 2018 from Kourou (French Guiana), and inserted into orbit around Mercury in April 2026. Its accuracy is expected to be 10 times better than the one of MESSENGER, and the studies inferring results from MESSENGER data can be seen as predictions for Bepi-Colombo.

The study and its authors

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The lunar history

(Alternative title: The search for the origin of the Late Heavy Bombardment)

Hi there! It is a pleasure for me to present you today a multi-disciplinary study, which mixes celestial mechanics with geochemistry. If you want to know the past of a planetary body, you must go backward: you start from the body as you observe it nowadays, and from this you infer the processes which made it evolve from its formation to its present state. In The timeline of the Lunar bombardment – revisited, by A. Morbidelli, D. Nesvorný, V. Laurenz, S. Marchi, D.C. Rubie, L. Elkins-Tanton, M. Wieczorek and S. Jacobson, the authors exploit our observations of the craters and the chemistry of the Moon, and simulations of the motion of asteroids in the early Solar System, to give new constraints on the bombardment of the Moon between 3.9 and 3.7 Gyr (billions of years) ago, which is famous as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). We will see that the results have implications for Mars. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The Lunar basins

Let us start from what we observe: the Lunar surface. This is a heavily cratered surface. Actually, the absence of atmosphere preserves it from erosion, and the small size of the Moon limits its heating, as a consequence the craters neither erode nor relax. Hence, the surface of the Moon is a signature of the activity in the early Solar System.

Let us focus on the largest structures, i.e. the maria and the basins. The maria are lava plains, which result from a volcanic activity of the early Moon. However, the basins are the largest impact craters. You can find below the largest ones, of course many smaller craters exist.

Basin Diameter (km)
South Pole-Aitken 2,600
Imbrium 1,100
Orientale 930
Serenitatis 920
Australe 880
Nectaris 860
Smythii 740
Crisium 740
Tranquillitatis 700
Tsiolkovsky-Stark 700
Fecunditatis 690
Mutus-Vlacq 690
Nubium 690

The early Moon was hot, because of the impact which created it. As a hot body, it stratified into a fluid core, a mantle and a crust, while cooling. The visible impact craters are younger than the crust, i.e. they are younger than 3.9 Gyr, and were created at least 600 Myr after the formation of the Moon… pretty late, hence due to the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Orientale Basin. © NASA
Orientale Basin. © NASA

Origin of the LHB: cataclysm or accretion tail?

Late Heavy Bombardment means that the inner Solar System have been intensively bombarded late after its genesis. But how did that happen? Two scenarios can be found in the literature:

  1. Cataclysm: the very young Solar System was very active, i.e. composed of many small bodies which collided, partly accreting… and became pretty quiet during some hundreds of Myr… before suddenly, a new phase of bombardment occurred.
  2. Accretion tail: the Solar System had a slowly decreasing activity, and the craters on the Moon are just the signature of the last 200 Myrs. The previous impacts were not recorded, since the surface was still molten.

The second scenario could be preferred, as the simplest one. The first one needs a cause which would trigger this second phase of bombardment. Anyway, many numerical simulations of the early Solar System got such an activity, as a dynamical phenomenon destabilizing the orbits of a group of small bodies, which themselves entered the inner Solar System and collided with the planets, accreting on them. The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn have a dominant dynamical influence on the small bodies of the Solar System, and could have triggered such an instability. One of the theories existing in the literature is the E-Belt, for extended belt. It would have been an internal extension of the Main Belt of asteroids, which would have been destabilized by a secular resonance with Saturn, and has finished as the impactors of the LHB. Why not, this is a theory.

When you model phenomena having occurred several billions years ago, you have so many uncertainties that you cannot be certain that your solution is the right one. This is why the literature proposes several scenarios. Further studies test them, and sometimes (this is the case here) give additional constraints, which refine them.

Thanks to the Apollo mission, samples of the Moon have been analyzed on Earth, and geochemistry can tell us many things on the history of a body. For the Moon, focus has been put on siderophile elements.

What siderophile elements tell us

A siderophile element is a chemical element which has affinity with iron. Among these elements are iron, iridium, palladium, platinum, rubidium… When a planetary body is hot, it tends to differentiate, and its heaviest elements, i.e. iron, migrate to the core. This results in a depletion of highly siderophile elements (HSE). Since a very small abundance of these elements has been observed, then we have no problem, thank you…

NO NO NO there is actually a problem, since these siderophile elements should be present in the impactors, which are supposed to have accreted on the Moon AFTER its stratification… yes we have a problem.

But some of the authors have shown recently that on Earth, another phenomenon could remove the HSEs from the crust, well after the formation of the core: the exsolution and segregation of iron sulfide. In other words, the bombardment could have brought more HSEs than currently recorded. And this motivates to revisite the history of the Lunar bombardment.

Simulating the bombardment

So, the observations are: the craters, and the HSEs. The craters are not only the basins, but also the smaller ones, with diameters larger than 1 km. Even smaller craters could be used, but the data are considered to be reliable, i.e. exhaustive, for craters larger than 1 km. From that size to the large basins, we can fit a function of distribution, i.e. number of craters vs. diameter. Since there is an obvious correlation between the size of a crater and the one of the impactor, a population of craters corresponds to a population of impactors.

The authors dispose of statistics of collisions, which could be seen as mass accretion, between the Moon and small bodies during the early ages of the Solar System. These statistics result from numerical simulations conducted by some of them, and they can be fine-tuned to fit the crater distribution, their estimated ages, and the abundance of highly siderophile elements. Fine-tuning the statistics consist in artificially moving the parameters of the simulation, for instance the initial number of small bodies, or the date of the instability provoking the cataclysm, in the cataclysm scenario.

Cataclysm possible, accretion tail preferred

And here is the result: if the HSEs are only due to the mass accretion after the cooling of the Lunar crust, then the observations can only be explained by the cataclysm, i.e. the LHB would be due to a late instability. This instability would have resulted in a mass accretion from comets, and this raises another problem: this accretion seems to lack of primitive, carbonaceous material, while the comets contain some.

However, if the HSEs have been removed after the cooling of the crust, then the accretion tail scenario is possible.

We should accept that for this kind of study, the solution is not unique. A way to tend to the unicity of the solution is to discuss further implications, in examining other clues. And the authors mention the tungsten.

Tungsten is another marker

Tungsten is rather a lithophile than a siderophile element, at least in the presence of iron sulfide. In other words, even if it does not dislike iron, it prefers lithium (I like this way of discussing chemistry). Something puzzling is a significant difference in the ratios of two isotopes of tungsten (182W and 184W) between the Moon and the Earth. This difference could be primordial, as brought by the projectile which is supposed to have splitted the proto-Earth into the Earth and the Moon (nickname of the projectile: Theia), or it could be due to the post-formation mass accumulation. In that case, that would be another constraint on the LHB.

Implications for Mars

The LHB has affected the whole inner Solar System. So, if a scenario is valid for the Moon, it must be valid for Mars.
This is why the authors did the job for Mars as well. A notable difference is that Mars would be less impacted by comets than the Moon, and this would affect the composition of the accreted material. More precisely, a cataclysmic LHB would be a mixture of asteroids and comets, while an accretion tail one would essentially consist of leftover planetesimals. It appears that this last scenario, i.e. the accretion tail one, can match the distribution of craters and the abundance of HSEs. However, the cataclysmic scenario would not bring enough HSEs on Mars.


This study tells us that the accretion tail scenario is possible. The authors show that it would imply that

  1. The quantity of remaining HSEs on the Moon is correlated with the crystallization of the Lunar magma ocean, which itself regulates the age of the earliest Lunar crust.
  2. For Mars, the Noachian era would have started 200 Myr earlier than currently thought, i.e. 4.3 Gyr instead of 4.1 Gyr. That period is characterized by high rates of meteorite and asteroid impacts and the possible presence of abundant surface water. Moreover, the Borealis formation, i.e. the northern hemisphere of Mars, which seems to be a very large impact basin, should have been formed 4.37 Gyr ago.

Further studies, explorations, space missions, lab experiments,… should give us new data, which would challenge these implications and refine these scenarios. So, the wording prediction can seem weird for past phenomena, but the prediction is for new clues.

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 and Facebook.

The origin of giant impactors

Hi there! You may know that our Solar System has had a catastrophic youth, destructive impacts playing an inescapable role in sculpting its structure. The paper I present you today, Constraints on the pre-impact orbits of Solar System giant impactors, by Alan P. Jackson, Travis S.J. Gabriel & Erik I. Asphaug, proposes an efficient way to determine the orbit of a giant impactor before the impact. This tells us where this impactor could have come from. The study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Giant impacts in the Solar System

In its early history, the Solar System was composed of many small bodies, i.e. many much than now, most of them having been cleared since then. They have been cleared because the gravitational perturbation of the planets made their orbits unstable. They may also have been destroyed by collisions. Before the clearing was completed, the presence of so many bodies favored intense bombardments. You know for instance the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), which probably happened 4 Byr ago, during 200 Myr.
The violence and the outcome of an impact depend on the relative sizes of the target and the impactor, and their relative velocities. Here, the relative velocity should be seen as a vector, i.e. not only the velocity itself is important (the norm of the vector), but its orientation as well, since it directly affects the incidence angle. The craters on the surface of telluric planets, asteroids, and planetary satellites tell us about the history of the bodies, and are the signature of such bombardment. They have been excavated by impactors of moderate size. But now, imagine that the impactor has the size of a planetary body. This is what the authors address as giant impactors.
Giant impactors could have been responsible for

  • the formation of the Moon,
  • the removal of light elements on Mercury,
  • the formation of the two satellites of Mars, Phobos and Deimos,
  • the tilt of Uranus,
  • the disruption of dwarf planets, creating asteroids families,
  • the rings of Saturn,

and many more.

2 kinds of massive impacts

When two bodies of pretty similar size collide, they could

  • either be destroyed, or just one of them be destroyed,
  • survive.

The last case is known as hit-and-run. It happens when the impact is tangential, like between two billiard balls. But it is a little more complicated, of course. This last decade has seen the publication of many Smooth Particle Hydrodynamics (SPH) simulations, in which the impactor and the target are modeled as aggregates of particles. Their mutual interactions are of course considered. Such simulations permit to model the differentiated composition of the two involved bodies, i.e. heavy elements constitute the core, while lighter ones make the mantle, and to trace the outcome of the different geochimical components during and after the impact. This way, the results can be compared with our knowledge of the composition of the bodies. We can evaluate which fraction of the material of the impactor is finally reaccreted on the target, and we can also determine the consequences of hit-and-run collisions. It appears that these collisions do not leave the two bodies intact, but they may strip them from their outer layers.

Why determining their origin

It appeared from the simulations and from the observed compositions of planetary bodies, like the Earth-Moon pair, that impacts do affect the composition of the resulting bodies, and that the difference of composition between the target and the impactor may result in variations of composition after the process is completed, i.e. not only the collision, but also the coalescence of the dust cloud and the reaccretion of the debris. Determining the composition of an impacted planetary body can tell us something on the composition of the impactor.
The composition of planetary bodies depend on their location in the Solar System. The distance with the Sun affects the temperature, which itself affects the viscoelastic properties of the material. Moreover, the initial protoplanetary nebula which gave birth to the Solar System had probably a radial dependent composition, which affected the composition of the resulting planetary bodies. If we could know where an impactor came from, that would tell us something on the primordial Solar System.

The impact velocity gives the orbit of the impactor

In 2014 the first author, i.e. Alan P. Jackson, while he was in UK, lead a study in which the orbital elements of the impacted bodies were determined, in modeling the impact as an impulsive velocity kick. In the present study, the authors invert the formulae, to get the pre-impact elements from the post-impact ones, which are observed, and from the impact velocity, which is estimated by other studies.

This seems easy, but actually is not. One of the problem is that the uncertainties on the impact velocity translates into a family of possible pre-impact elements. Anyway, they give constraints on the semimajor axis, eccentricity and inclination of the impactor. Something very interesting with this method is that the inversion of analytical formulae is very fast with a computer, i.e. you can have the result in a few seconds, maybe less, while the classical method would consist to run N-body simulations during days, where you model the motions of thousands of candidate-impactors (of which you know nothing), until you observe a collision… or not.

In determining the possible pre-impact orbital elements, the authors can assess whether the impactors are likely to fall on the Sun, or to cross the orbit of another planet. In particular, a Sun-grazing solution should obviously be rejected. Moreover, the authors consider that an impactor which would have crossed the orbit of Jupiter would probably have been ejected from the Solar System. As a consequence, such a solution has only a low probability.

And now, let us have a look at the results! The authors applied their method on the formation of the Moon, of Mercury, and on the northern hemisphere of Mars.

A slow impact formed the Moon

It is widely accepted that a giant impactor, nicknamed Theia, has split the proto-Earth between the Earth and the Moon. The literature proposes us three scenarios:

  1. A canonical scenario, in which Theia is a Mars-sized object,
  2. A hit-and-run scenario, in which only part of Theia constitutes the protolunar disk,
  3. A violent scenario, which assumes that the Earth spun very fast at the time of the impact, and that the total angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system was twice the present one. This last scenario requires high impact velocities.

It appears from the results that the last of these scenarios, which requires high velocities, is much less probable than the others, because high velocities translate into highly eccentric orbits. Highly eccentric orbits are the less stable ones, in particular many of them cross the orbit of Jupiter, which could eject them from the Solar System.
So, a conclusion of this study is that the formation of the Moon probably results from a low velocity impact between the proto-Earth and Theia.

Stripping Mercury from its light elements

The composition of Mercury is intriguing, since it is anomalously dense with respect to its size. It is as if the observed Mercury would only be the core of a planet. A proposed explanation is that the proto-Mercury was composed of that core and a mantle of lighter elements (an alternative one is a depletion of lighter elements in the protoplanetary nebula in that region of the Solar System). And of course, it has been imagined that the removal of the mantle is due to a giant impact.

Two scenarios are present in the literature:

  1. A violent impact on the proto-Mercury, which would have removed the mantle,
  2. A succession of hit-and-run collisions in which the proto-Mercury would have been the impactor on the proto-Earth and / or the proto-Venus, and which would have been progressively enriched in iron.

The authors consider the multiple hit-and-run scenario as the most probable one, since it is the one involving the smallest velocities, and limits the possibility of gravitational scattering by Jupiter.

A giant impact on Mars

The North Polar Basin of Mars, or Borealis Basin, covers 40% of the surface of Mars. It may be the largest impact basin in the Solar System, and it creates a dichotomy between the northern and the southern hemispheres.

Topography of Mars, from the instrument MOLA. Borealis Basin is the large blue region in the north. © USGS
Topography of Mars, from the instrument MOLA. Borealis Basin is the large blue region in the north. © USGS

The authors stress that the exact location of Mars at the date of the impact does affect the results, in particular Earth-crossing orbits are allowed only is Mars was close to its pericentre (the location on its orbit, where it is the closest to the Sun). Anyway, they find that the impactor should have had an orbit close to the one of Mars, and suggest that its semimajor axis could have been between 1.2 and 2.2 astronomical unit (the one of Mars being 1.52 AU).

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 and Facebook.

The mountainous equator of Iapetus

Hi there! You may have heard of Iapetus, a large satellite of Saturn which orbits very far. Today I will tell you about its equatorial ridge. This is the opportunity for me to present you Testing models for the formation of the equatorial ridge on Iapetus via crater counting, by Amanda L. Damptz, Andrew J. Dombard & Michelle R. Kirchoff, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The satellite Iapetus

The satellite of Saturn Iapetus was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini in October 1671. It orbited then on the western side of Saturn. During many years, i.e. until 1705, he was unable to observe it on the eastern side, since it was two magnitudes fainter. This has two implications:

  1. Iapetus has a two-tone coloration, i.e. a dark and a bright hemisphere,
  2. its rotation is synchronous. Like our Moon, it is locked in the synchronous 1:1 spin-orbit resonance, constantly showing the same face to Saturn.

Beside this, Iapetus is a large body (diameter: 1,470 km), which orbits at 3.5 millions km from Saturn (for comparison, Titan orbits almost thrice closer), with an orbital eccentricity of 0.028, very close to the one of Titan. It has an unexpectedly high orbital inclination, i.e. 15.47° with the equator of Saturn, and 8.13° with the Laplace Plane. We should imagine the proto-Saturn nebula, from which Iapetus has probably been formed. It was pretty much like a disc, but distorted by the Sun if you were far enough from Saturn, which is the case for Iapetus. What I mean is that the gravitational action of the Sun tends to shift the equilibrium orbital plane from the equatorial one, this is why we need to distinguish it, and we call it the Laplace Plane. In that case, the orbital inclination of Iapetus with respect to the Laplace Plane should be very small, but it is not. This probably contains an information on the history of Iapetus, but we do not know which one yet.

Let me go back to the rotation. Iapetus is so far from Saturn that it needs almost 80 days to complete one revolution, and 80 days for a rotation, since it is synchronous. This is the largest known spin period for a natural satellite in the Solar System.

As most of the satellites of Saturn, our knowledge of Iapetus made invaluable progress since 2004 thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, which imaged it. It confirmed the two-tone coloration, and detected a mountainous equatorial ridge.

Iapetus seen by the Cassini spacecraft. © NASA
Iapetus seen by the Cassini spacecraft. © NASA

The equatorial ridge

The Cassini images showed a 20 km-wide mountainous ridge, which is very close to the equator. So close that it is hard to believe it appeared there by chance. It is present on the dark hemisphere, while isolated equatorial mountains can be seen on the bright side. Some peaks reach 20 km.

Since its discovery late 2004, this ridge is a matter of investigation, and several competing explanations can be found in the literature:

  1. A signature of its past, fast rotation (the measured oblateness of Iapetus is consistent with a rotation period of 16 hours)
  2. A signature of a past critical spin state, i.e. close to provoke disruption of Iapetus,
  3. Upwarping of the lithosphere from below,
  4. Cryovolcanism,
  5. Planetary contraction,
  6. Material from an ancient ring system,
  7. Material from impact generated debris.

We can see that some of these scenarios propose an inner (endogenic) cause, while others propose an outer (exogenic) one. Almost all of them suggest an early formation of the ridge, except the last one.
One way to date a geological feature is to count its craters, and this is where this study intervenes. Its first product is a database of 7,748 craters ranging from 0.83 to 591 km in diameter.

Counting the craters

When an impactor reaches a planetary surface, it creates a crater. If one day geological processes are strong enough to create a tectonic feature, then it may at least alter the crater, or even hide it. If we see an uncraterized geological feature, that means that it is pretty young. We could even try to give it an age in estimating the evolution of the cratering rates over the evolution of the Solar System. By the way, the early Solar System was very intensively bombarded, with an episode of Late Heavy Bombardment occurring between 4.1 and 3.8 billions years ago. Bombardments still happen nowadays, but are much less frequent.

In this study the authors worked from Cassini and Voyager images of the surface of Iapetus, and considered different zones: central ridge, peripheral ridge, and off ridge. Moreover they classified the craters following their diameters, so as to estimate a distribution law: number of craters vs. size. They also catalogued the orientation of the deformations of the craters, since it could tell us something on the geological evolution of Iapetus (how did it alter the surface?)

This systematic search for craters was assisted by the commercial software Esri’s ArcGIS, supplemented by the dedicated add-on Crater Helper Tools.


The first result is a database of 7,748 craters. But the main question is: what can we say about the ridge? The authors observe a depletion of large craters, i.e. with a diameter bigger than 16 km, in the ridge, which would be consistent with a pretty recent formation, and thus would favor the scenario of a ridge created by the debris of an impact. Nevertheless, the authors are prudent with this conclusion, they seem to suggest that the resolution of the images and the risk of saturation of small craters (when you are heavily bombarded, new craters destroyed ancient ones, and the overall number does not increase) do not permit to discard a scenario of early formation of the ridge. Further studies will probably be needed to reach an agreement on the origin of this mountainous equator.

The study and its authors

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