Tag Archives: Impacts

Tilting and retilting our Moon

Hi there! The Moon is so close and so familiar to us, but I realize this is my first post on it. Today I present you a paper entitled South Pole Aitken Basin magnetic anomalies: Evidence for the true polar wander of Moon and a lunar dynamo reversal, by Jafar Arkani-Hamed and Daniel Boutin, which will be published soon in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The idea is to track the variations of the magnetic field of the Moon along its history, as a signature of the motion of its rotation pole, i.e. of a polar wander.

Our Moon’s facts

The Moon is a fascinating object, as it is the only known natural satellite of the Earth, and we see it as large as the Sun in our sky. It orbits around the Earth at a distance of almost 400,000 km in 27.3 days. It shows us always the same face, as a result of a tidal locking of its rotation, making it synchronous, i.e. its spin period is equal to its orbital period.

Moonset over Paris, France. Copyright: Josselin Desmars.

Something interesting is its pretty large size, i.e. its radius is one fourth of the one of the Earth. It is widely admitted that the Moon and the Earth have a common origin, i.e. either a proto-Earth has been impacted by a Mars-sized impactor, which split it between the Earth and the Moon, or the Earth-Moon system results from the collision of two objects of almost the same size. In both cases, the Earth and the Moon would have been pretty hot just after the impact, which also means active… and this has implications for the magnetic field.

A very weak magnetic field has been detected for the Moon, but which is very different from the Earth’s. The magnetic field of the Earth, or geomagnetic field, has the signature of a dipolar one, in the sense that it has a clear orientation. This happens when the rotating core acts as a dynamo. The north magnetic pole is some 10° shifted from the spin pole of the Earth, and has an amplitude between 25 and 65 μT (micro-teslas). However, the magnetic field of the Moon, measured at its surface, does not present a clear orientation, and never reaches 1 μT. Its origin is thus not obvious, even if we could imagine that the early Moon was active enough to harbor a dynamo, from which the measured magnetic field would be a signature… But the absence of preferred orientation is confusing.

The core dynamo

The core of the Earth spins, it is surrounded by liquid iron, which is conductive, and there is convection in this fluid layer, which is driven by the heat flux diffusing from the core to the surface of the Earth. This process creates and maintains a magnetic field.

For the Earth, the core dynamo is assumed to account for 80 to 90% of the total magnetic field. This results in a preferred orientation. Other processes that could create a magnetic field are a global asymmetry of the electric charges of the planet, or the presence of an external magnetic field, for instance due to a star.

A dynamo could be expected for many planetary objects, which would be large enough to harbor a global fluid layer. It is usually thought that the detection of a magnetic field is a clue for the presence of a global ocean. Such a magnetic field has been detected for Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, which is probably due to an outer liquid layer coating its iron core.

The Moon has probably no dynamo, but could have had one in the past. The measured magnetic field could be its signature. A question is: what could have driven this dynamo? The early Moon was hotter than the current one, so a magnetic field existed at that time. And after that, the Moon experienced intense episodes of bombardment, like the Late Heavy Bombardment. The resulting impacts affected the orientation of the Moon, its shape, and also its temperature. This could have itself triggered a revival of the magnetic field, particularly for the biggest impact.

The study I present today deals with measurements of the magnetic field in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, not to be confused with the Aitken crater, which is present in its region. The South Pole-Aitken Basin is one of the largest known impact crater in the Solar System, with a diameter of 2,500 km and a depth of 13 km. This basin contains other craters, which means that it is older than all of them, its age is estimated to be 4.1 Gyr (gigayears, i.e. billions of years). Measurements of the magnetic field in each of these craters could give its evolution over the ages. But why is it possible?

The magnetic field as a signature of the history

When a material is surrounded by a magnetic field, it can become magnetic itself. This phenomenon is known as induced magnetization, and depends on the magnetic susceptibility of the material, i.e. the efficiency of this process depends on the material. Once the surrounding magnetic field has disappeared, the material might remain magnetic anyway, i.e. have its remanent magnetic field. This is what has been measured by the Lunar Prospector mission, whose data originated this study.
An issue is the temperature. The impact should be hot enough to trigger the magnetic field, which implies that the material would be hot, but it cannot be magnetized if it is too hot. Below a Curie temperature, the process of induced magnetization just does not work. You can even demagnetize a material in heating it. For the magnetite, which is a mineral containing iron and present on the Moon, the Curie temperature is 860 K, i.e. 587°C, or 1089°F.

Lunar Prospector

This study uses data of the Lunar Prospector mission. This NASA mission has been launched in January 1998 from Cape Canaveral and has orbited the Moon on a polar orbit during 18 months, until July 1999. It made a full orbit in a little less than 2 hours, at a mean altitude of 100 km (60 miles). This allowed to cover the whole surface of the Moon, and to make measurements with 6 instruments, related to gamma rays, electrons, neutrons, gravity… and the magnetic field.

Results of this study

This study essentially consists of two parts: a theoretical study of the temperature evolution of the Moon over its early ages, including after impacts, and the interpretation of the magnetic field data. These data are 14 magnetic anomalies in the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which the theoretical study helps to date. And the data show two orientations of the magnetic field in the magnetic in the past, giving an excursion of more than 100° over the ages.

Now, if we consider that in the presence of a core dynamo, the magnetic field should be nearly aligned with the spin pole, this means that the Moon has experienced a polar wander of more than 100° in its early life. More precisely, the two orientations are temporally separated by the creation of the Imbrium basin, 3.9 Gyr ago. In other words, the Moon has been tilted. This is not the only case in the Solar System, see e.g. Enceladus.

To know more

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.

Enceladus lost its balance

Hi there! Today I will present you True polar wander of Enceladus from topographic data, by Tajeddine et al., which has recently been published in Icarus. The idea is this: Enceladus is a satellite of Saturn which has a pretty stable rotation axis. In the past, its rotation axis was already stable, but with a dramatically different orientation, i.e. 55° shifted from the present one! The authors proposed this scenario after having observed the distribution of impact basins at its surface.

Enceladus’s facts

Enceladus is one of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn, it is actually the second innermost of them. It has a mean radius of some 250 km, and orbits around Saturn in 1.37 day, at a distance of ~238,000 km. It is particularly interesting since it presents evidence of past and present geophysical activity. In particular, geysers have been observed by the Cassini spacecraft at its South Pole, and its southern hemisphere presents four pretty linear features known as tiger stripes, which are fractures.

Enceladus seen by Cassini (Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute).
Enceladus seen by Cassini (Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute).

Moreover, analyses of the gravity field of Enceladus, which is a signature of its interior, strongly suggest a global, subsurfacic ocean, and a North-South asymmetry. This asymmetry is consistent with a diapir of water at its South Pole, which would be the origin of the geysers. The presence of the global ocean has been confirmed by measurements of the amplitude of the longitudinal librations of its surface, which are consistent with a a crust, that a global ocean would have partially decoupled from the interior.

The rotation of a planetary satellite

Planetary satellites have a particularly interesting rotational dynamics. Alike our Moon, they show on average always the same face to a fictitious observer, which would observe the satellite from the surface of the parent planet (our Earth for the Moon, Saturn for Enceladus). This means that they have a synchronous rotation, i.e. a rotation which is synchronous with their orbit, but also that the orientation of their spin axis is pretty stable.
And this is the key point here: the spin axis is pretty orthogonal to the orbit (this orientation is called Cassini State 1), and it is very close to the polar axis, which is the axis of largest moment of inertia. This means that we have a condition on the orientation of the spin axis with respect to the orbit, AND with respect to the surface. The mass distribution in the satellite is not exactly spherical, actually masses tend to accumulate in the equatorial plane, more particularly in the satellite-planet direction, because of the combined actions of the rotation of the satellites and the tides raised by the parent planet. This implies a shorter polar axis. And the study I present today proposes that the polar axis has been tilted of 55° in the past. This tilt is called polar wander. This result is suggested by the distribution of the craters at the surface of Enceladus.

Relaxing a crater

The Solar System bodies are always impacted, this was especially true during the early ages of the Solar System. And the inner satellites of Saturn were more impacted than the outer ones, because the mass of Saturn tends to attract the impactors, focusing their trajectories.
As a consequence, Enceladus got heavily impacted, probably pretty homogeneously, i.e. craters were everywhere. And then, over the ages, the crust slowly went back to its original shape, relaxing the craters. The craters became then basins, and eventually some of them disappeared. Some of them, but not all of them.
The process of relaxation is all the more efficient when the material is hot. For material which properties strongly depend on the temperature, a stagnant lid can form below the surface, which would partly preserve it from the heating by convection, and could preserve the craters. This phenomenon appears preferably at equatorial latitudes.
This motivates the quest for basins. A way for that is to measure the topography of the surface.

Modeling the topography

The surface of planetary body can be written as a sum of trigonometric series, known as spherical harmonics, in which the radius would depend on 2 parameters, i.e. the latitude and the longitude. This way, you have the radius at any point of the surface. Classically, two terms are kept, which allow to represent the surface as a triaxial ellipsoid. This is the expected shape from the rotational and tidal deformations. If you want to look at mass anomalies, then you have to go further in the expansion of the formula. But to do that, you need data, i.e. measurements of the radius at given coordinates. And for that, the planetologists dispose of the Cassini spacecraft, which made several flybys of Enceladus, since 2005.
Two kinds of data have been used in this study: limb profiles, and control points.
Limb profiles are observations of the bright edge of an illuminated object, they result in very accurate measurements of limited areas. Control points are features on the surface, detected from images. They can be anywhere of the surface, and permit a global coverage. In this study, the authors used 41,780 points derived from 54 limb profiles, and 6,245 control points.
Measuring the shape is only one example of use of such data. They can also be used to measure the rotation of the body, in comparing several orientations of given features at different dates.
These data permitted the authors to model the topography up to the order 16.

The result

The authors identified a set of pretty aligned basins, which would happen for equatorial basins protected from relaxation by stagnant lid convection. But the problem is this: the orientation of this alignment would need a tilt of 55° of Enceladus to be equatorial! This is why the authors suggest that Enceladus has been tilted in the past.

The observations do not tell us anything on the cause of this tilt. Some blogs emphasize that it could be due to an impact. Why not? But less us be cautious.
Anyway, the orientation of the rotation axis is consistent with the current mass distribution, i.e. the polar axis has the largest moment of inertia. Actually, mid-sized planetary satellites like Enceladus are close to sphericity, in the sense that there is no huge difference between the moments of inertia of its principal axes. So, a redistribution of mass after a violent tilt seems to be possible.

To know more

And now the 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 contraction of Mercury

Hi there! Today’s post deals with the early evolution of Mercury, in particular its cooling. At the beginning of its life, a planet experiences variations of temperature, and then cooling, and while cooling, it contracts. The surface may present some signature of this contraction, and this is the object of the paper I present you today. It is entitled Timing and rate of global contraction of Mercury, by Kelsey T. Crane and Christian Klimczak, from the University of Georgia, and it has been recently accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters. The idea is to infer the history of the contraction from the observation of the craters and the faults.

Mercury’s facts

Mercury is the innermost planet of the Solar System, with a mean distance to the Sun which is about one third of the Sun-Earth distance. It has an eccentric orbit, with an eccentricity of 0.206, and orbits the Sun in 88 days while the planet rotates around itself in 58 days. This is very long when compared to the terrestrial day, but it also means that there is a ratio 1.5 between the spin and the orbital frequencies. This is called a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which is a dynamical equilibrium favored by the proximity of the Sun and the orbital eccentricity.

Mercury seen by MESSENGER (Credit: NASA)

An interesting fact is the high density of Mercury, i.e. Mercury is too dense for a terrestrial planet. Usually, a large enough body is expected to have a stratified structure, in which the heaviest elements are concentrated in the core. Mercury is so dense than it is thought to be the core of a former and larger proto-Mercury.

Mercury’s early life

There is no agreement on the way Mercury lost its mantle of lighter elements. You can find the following scenarios in the literature:

  1. Slow volatilization of the mantle by the solar wind,
  2. Very large impact,
  3. Loss of the light elements by photophoresis,
  4. Magnetic erosion.

The scenario of the large impact was very popular until the arrival of MESSENGER, in particular because the models of formation of the Solar System and the observation of the surface of Mercury suggest that Mercury has been heavily impacted in its early life. However, the detection of volatiles elements, in particular potassium, on the surface of Mercury, is interpreted by some planetary scientists as inconsistent with the large impact scenario. The large impact would have induced extreme heating of the planet, and for some scientists the potassium would not have survived this episode. The other scenarios involve much slower processes, and less heating.

This raises the question: how hot was the early Mercury? We still do not know, but this is related to the study I present here.

The exploration of Mercury

The proximity of Mercury to the Sun makes it difficult to explore, because of the large gravitational action of the Sun which significantly perturbs the orbit of a spacecraft, and more importantly because of the large temperatures in this area of the Solar System.

Contrarily to Venus and Mars, which regularly host space programs, Mercury has been and will be the target of only 3 space missions so far:

  1. Mariner 10 (NASA): It has been launched in November 1973 to make flybys of Venus and Mercury. Three flybys of Mercury have been realized between March 1974 and March 1975. This mission gave us the first images of the surface of the planet, covering some 45% of it. It also discovered the magnetic field of Mercury.
  2. MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging) (NASA): This was the first human-made object to orbit Mercury. It was launched in August 2004 from Cape Canaveral and has been inserted around Mercury in March 2011, after one flyby of the Earth, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mercury. These flybys permitted to use the gravity of the planets to reduce the velocity of the spacecraft, which was necessary for the orbital insertion. MESSENGER gave us invaluable data, like the gravity field of Mercury, a complete cartography with topographical features (craters, plains, faults,…), new information on the gravity field, it supplemented Earth-based radar measurements of the rotation, it revealed the chemical composition of the surface… The mission stopped in April 2015.
  3. Bepi-Colombo (ESA / JAXA): This is a joint mission of the European and Japanese space agencies, which is composed of two elements: the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO, JAXA), and the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO, ESA). It should be launched in October 2018 and inserted into orbit in December 2025, after one flyby of the Earth, two flybys of Venus, and 6 flybys of Mercury. Beside the acquisition of new data on the planet with a better accuracy than MESSENGER, it will also perform a test of the theory of the general relativity, in giving new measurements of the post-newtonian parameters β and γ. β is associated with the non-linearities of the gravity field, while γ is related with the curvature of the spacetime. In the theory of the general relativity, these two parameters should be strictly equal to 1.

This paper

The idea of the paper is based on the competition between two processes for altering the surface of Mercury:

  1. Impacts, which are violent, rapid phenomena, creating craters,
  2. Tides, which is a much slower process that creates faults, appearing while the planet is contracting. The local stress tensor can be inferred from the direction of the faults.

Dating a crater is possible, from its preservation. And when a crater and a fault are located at the same place, there are two possibilities:

  1. either the fault cuts the crater (see Enheduanna, just below), or
  2. the crater interrupts the fault.

In the first case, the fault appeared after the impact, while in the second case, the fault was already present before Mercury was impacted. So, if you can constrain the age of the crater, you can constrain the apparition of the fault, and the contraction of the planet. From a global analysis of the age of the faults, the authors deduced the variation of the contraction rate over the ages.

A close up of Enheduanna Crater. Credit: IAU

The authors used a database of 3,112 craters ranging from 20 to 2,000 km, which were classified into 5 classes, depending on their degree of preservation. And the result are given below.

Class Name Age Craters Cut Superpose
1+2 Pre-Tolstojan + Tolstojan >3.9 Gy 2,310 1,192 4
3 Calorian 3.9 – 3.5 Gy 536 266 104
4 Mansurian 3.5 – 1 Gy 244 49 55
5 Kuiperian < 1 Gy 22 0 3

We can see that the eldest craters are very unlikely to superpose a fault, while the bombardment was very intense at that time. However, the authors have detected more superposition after. They deduced the following contraction rates:

Time Contraction (radius)
Pre-Tolstojan + Tolstojan 4.0 ± 1.6 km
Calorian 0.90 ± 0.35 km
Mansurian 0.17 ± 0.07 km
Kuiperian 0

This means that the contraction rate has decreased over the ages, which is not surprising, since the temperature of Mercury has slowly reached an equilibrium.

A perspective : constraining the early days of Mercury

In my opinion, such a study could permit to constrain the evolution of the temperature of Mercury over the ages, and thus date its stratification. Maybe this would also give new clues on the way Mercury lost its light elements (impact or not?).

To know more

That’s all for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

Forming the rings of Chariklo

Hi there! Today’s article is on the rings of the small planet Chariklo. Their origin is being discussed in Assessment of different formation scenarios for the ring system of (10199) Chariklo, by Mario Melita, René Duffard, Jose-Luis Ortiz and Adriano Campo Bagatin, which has recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The Centaur (10199)Chariklo

As a Centaur, (10199)Chariklo orbits around the Sun, between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. It has been discovered in February 1997 thanks to the Spacewatch program, which was a systematic survey conducted at Kitt Peak National Observatory in
Arizona, USA. It orbits about the Sun in 63 years, has an orbital inclination of 23°, and an eccentricity of 0.17, which results in significant variations of its distance to the Sun. Moreover, it orbits close to the 4:3 mean-motion resonance with Uranus, which means that it performs 4 revolutions around the Sun while Uranus performs almost 3.

(10199)Chariklo is considered to be possibly a dwarf planet. A dwarf planet is not a planet, since the International Astronomical Union reserved this appellation for only 8 objects, but looks like one. As such, it is large enough to have a pretty spherical shape, with a mean radius of 151 km. It has a pretty fast rotation, with a period of 7 hours. Something unusual to notice: its equatorial section is almost circular (no problem), but its polar axis is the longest one, while it should be the shortest if Chariklo had been shaped by its rotational deformation.

The planetary rings

Everybody knows the massive rings of Saturn, which can be seen from the Earth with any telescope. These rings are composed of particles, which typical radius ranges from the centimeter to some meters. These particles are mostly water ice, with few contamination by silicates.
The spacecrafts Voyager have revealed us the presence of a tiny ring around Jupiter, mainly composed of dust. Moreover, Earth-based observations of Uranus and Neptune revealed rings in 1978 and 1984, respectively. We now know 13 rings for Uranus, which should be composed of submillimetric particles, and 5 rings for Neptune. Interestingly, one of the rings of Neptune, Adams, is composed of 5 arcs, i.e. 5 zones of surdensity, which seem to be pretty stable.

It is usually assumed that rings around a planet originate from the disruption of a small body, possibly an impactor. A question is : why do these rings not reaccrete into a new planetary body, which could eventually become a satellite of a planet? Because its orbit is above the Roche limit.

The Roche limit

The Roche limit is named after the French astronomer and mathematician Édouard Albert Roche who discovered that when a body was too close from a massive object, it could just not survive. This allowed him to say that the distance Mars-Phobos which was originally announced when Phobos was discovered was wrong, and he was right.

Imagine a pretty small object orbiting around a massive planet. Since the object has a finite dimension, the gravitational force exerted by the planet has some variation over the volume of the object. More precisely, it decreases with the square of the distance to the planet. If the internal cohesion in the body is smaller than the variations of the gravitational attraction which affect the body, then it just cannot survive, and is tidally disrupted.

It was long thought than you need a very massive central object to get rings around. This is why the announcement of the discovery of rings around Chariklo, in 2014, was a shock.

The rings of Chariklo

The discovery of these rings has been announced in March 2014, and was the consequence of the observation of the occultation by Chariklo of the star UCAC4 248-108672 in June 2013 by 13 instruments, in South America. This was a multichord observation mostly aiming at characterizing a stellar occultation observed from different sites, to infer clues on the shape of the occulting body, and possibly discover a satellite (see this related post). In the case of Chariklo, short occultations before AND after the main one have been measured, which meant a ring system around Chariklo. The following video, made by the European South Observatory, illustrates the light flux drops due to the rings and to Chariklo itself.

Actually two rings were discovered, which are now named Oiapoque and Chuí. They have both a radius close to 400 km, Oiapoque being the inner one. These two rings are separated by a gap of about 9 km. Photometric measurements suggest there are essentially composed of water ice.

This study

This study investigates and discusses different possible causes for the formation of the rings of Chariklo.

Tidal disruption of a small body: REJECTED

It can be shown that, for a satellite which orbits beyond the Roche limit, i.e. which should not be tidally disrupted, the tides induce a secular migration of its orbit: if the satellite orbits faster than the central body (here, Chariklo) rotates around its polar axis, then the satellites migrates inward, i.e. gets closer to the satellite. In that case, it would eventually reach the Roche limit and be disrupted; this is the expected fate of the satellite of Mars Phobos. However, if it orbits above the synchronous orbit, which means that its orbital angular velocity is smaller than the rotation of Chariklo, then it would migrate outward.
In the case of Chariklo, the synchronous orbit is closer than the Roche limit. The rotation period of Chariklo is 7 hours, while the rings’ one is 20 hours. As a consequence, tidal inward migration until disruption is impossible. It would have needed Chariklo to have spun much slower in the past, while a faster rotation is to be expected because of the loss of rotational energy over the ages.

Collision between a former satellite of Chariklo and another body: VERY UNLIKELY

If the rings are the remnants of a former satellite of Chariklo, then models of formation suggest that this satellite should have had a radius of about 3 km. The total mass of the rings is estimated to be the one of a satellite of 1 km, but only part of the material would have stayed in orbit around Chariklo.
The occurence of such an impact is almost precluded by the statistics.

Collision between Chariklo and another body: UNLIKELY

We could imagine that the rings are ejectas of an impact on Chariklo. The authors estimate that this impact would have left a crater with a diameter between 20 and 50 km. Once more, the statistics almost preclude it.

Three-body encounter: POSSIBLE

Imagine an encounter between an unringed Chariklo and another small planet, which itself has a satellite. In that case, favorable conditions could result in the trapping of the satellite in the gravitational field of Chariklo, and its eventual disruption if it is below the Roche limit. The author estimate that it would require the largest body to have a radius of about 6.5 km, and its (former) satellite a radius of 330 meters.

The authors favor this scenario, but I do not see how a satellite of a radius of 330 m could generate a ring, which material should correspond to a 1 km-radius body.

Beyond Chariklo

The quest for rings is not done. Since 2015, another Centaur, (2060)Chiron, is suspected to harbor a system of rings. This could mean that rings are not to be searched around large bodies, as long thought, but in a specific region of the Solar System. Matt Hedman has proposed that the weakness of ice at 70K, which is its temperature in that region of the Solar System, favors the formation and the stability of rings.

To know more

That’s all for today! I hope you liked it. As usual, you are free to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter.

Matter exchange in Pluto’s backyard

Hi there! Today I will tell you about a recent study accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This study, by Rachel A. Smullen and Kaitlin M. Kratter, addresses “The fate of debris in the Pluto-Charon system”, and has been conducted at Steward Observatory, AZ (USA).

The Pluto-Charon system

Pluto has been discovered by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. This was the first discovered object of the Kuiper Belt, and it has been considered as the 9th planet of the Solar System until 2006. Still in Flagstaff, its satellite Charon has been discovered in 1978. Later on, the next arrival of the New Horizons spacecraft motivated observing this system, and thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, 4 other small moons were discovered: Nix and Hydra in 2005, and Styx and Kerberos in 2012. You can find below images of these 6 bodies taken by New Horizons, and some of their orbital and shape parameters.

Pluto (left) and Charon (right) seen by New Horizons. The white heart on Pluto’s surface is an ice-covered basin named Sputnik Planitia, while the dark spot on Charon’s north pole is named Mordor macula. Copyright: NASA
The small moons, seen by New Horizons. Copyright: NASA
Discovery Radius Distance
Pluto 1930 1187 km 0
Charon 1978 606 km 19571 km
Hydra 2005 23 km 64738 km
Nix 2005 18 km 48694 km
Kerberos 2012 5 km 57783 km
Styx 2012 5 km 42656 km

The pair Pluto-Charon is fascinating from a dynamical point of view, since they represent a case of double synchronous spin-orbit resonance. You know that the Moon is always showing the same face to the Earth, which is due to its synchronous rotation. This means that its orbital period around the Earth is exactly the same as its rotation period, this is a dynamical equilibrium which has been reached after tides had dissipated the rotational energy of the Moon. But the phenomenon goes further for Pluto-Charon, since not only Charon shows the same face to Pluto, but Pluto shows the same face to Charon! This is a consequence of the relative size of the two bodies, each of them being sufficiently large to affect the other one.
On the contrary, the small moons have a much more rapid rotation, which is less obvious to explain.

The system of Pluto has been visited in 2015 by the spacecraft New Horizons, which gave us invaluable data and the nice images I show you today.

The Plutinos

The orbit of this system around the Sun is interested as well. Not only it has a significant inclination (17.16° wrt ecliptic), but it is also in a 3:2 mean-motion resonance (MMR) with Neptune. This means that Pluto makes exactly two revolutions around the Sun while Neptune makes three. Moreover, this is a pretty stable dynamical zone. This is probably why Pluto and its satellites are not the only bodies in this zone. Beside the Pluto system, the first Plutino has been discovered in 1993 at the Mauna Kea Observatory, HI.
The following figure gives a repartition of the known Trans-Neptunian Objects with respect to their semimajor axis, the Plutinos represent a peak at 39 astronomical units.

Distribution of the Kuiper-Belt Objects, plotted from the data of the Minor Planet Center, consulted on January 28th 2017. We see the Plutinos as an accumulation of objects close to 39 AU, which corresponds to the 3:2 MMR with Neptune. The second peak, close to 44 AU, does not correspond to a known resonance. Copyright: The Planetary Mechanics Blog.

Formation of planetary debris disks

The last thing I would like to tell you before presenting the study itself is: how to make a debris disk around a pretty massive body? It is thought to come from an impact. An impactor impacts the target, is destroyed into very small parts, which coalesce into rings, before eventually reaccreting and / or being ejected. The most famous debris disk in the Solar System in the system of the Saturnian rings, but there are actually rings about the four giant planets of the Solar System, and the Centaurs (asteroids between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune) Chariklo and possibly Chiron.
It is thought that the Moon is the consequence of such a process, i.e. there has been a debris disk around the Earth. And it is also thought that Charon has been created the same way.

This paper

This study aims at understanding the fate of the debris disk which has created Charon. Once enough debris accreted to create Charon, or a proto-Charon, debris remained, and have been ejected. There are at least two ways to model a disk: either you consider it as a gas, i.e. some fluid, or you see it as a cloud of many particles, which interact. These interactions are close encounters and collisions, with translate into viscosity if you model the disk as a gas.

A numerical study

In this study, the authors chose to model the debris disk as a cloud of particles, which is probably the only way to model the path of ejecta. They made several simulations involved 27060 test particles, over 27.3 kyr, i.e. 1.5 million orbits of Pluto and Charon about their common barycenter. Such a study requires high performance soft- and hardware. Their code was based on the integrator Mercury, which is a commonly used N-body code modeling the motion of N body which interact gravitationally and may collide. The test particles are massless, so they have no gravitational action, but they are under the action of Pluto and its 5 satellites. In some of the tests, a migration of Pluto, which is predicted by models of formation of the Solar System, has also been considered.
The hardware is the Super-computer El-Gato (Extremely LarGe Advanced TechnOlogy), based at the University of Arizona, and partly funded by the National Science Foundation.

Once the simulations have run, the authors got the results. And the results are… drum roll please…

Making craters on Charon

The New Horizons images show that Charon is craterized. In all of their simulations, the authors have collisions between Charon and the debris disk. They show that the impact rate is higher if Charon formed on a wide and eccentric orbit. Moreover, they have fewer impacts if secular migration of Pluto is considered.
An issue is: what could be the signature of such an impact now? We know from its synchronous rotation and from the ridges at its surface that Charon has been hot. Hot enough would mean that part of its surface could have been renewed, and then the older impacts would have no signature anymore. Moreover, it would be interesting, but I doubt the information is present in the New Horizons data, to map the impact on the whole surface of Charon. If Charon was synchronous during the most intense episode of impacts, then we would expect a hemispheric repartition of the craters.

Making Plutinos

The simulations show that the most probable destination of the ejected debris is the 3:2 MMR with Neptune. This means that the observed Plutinos could originate from the impact which created Charon. This would mean that the Plutinos are a collisional family, which could be test from their composition. It should be similar to Pluto’s.

And the small moons?

The simulations do not manage to form the small moons. So, the question of their origin is still open.

Some links…

And that’s it for today! New Horizons is en-route to the asteroid 2014 MU69, which would be the first object visited by a spacecraft which had been launched before its discovery. It should reach it either on December 31th, 2018, or January 1st 2019.
Please feel free to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter.