Tag Archives: Mars

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 lowlands of Mars

Hi there! Today I will give you the composition of the subsurface of the lowlands of Mars. This is the opportunity for me to present you The stratigraphy and history of Mars’ northern lowlands through mineralogy of impact craters: A comprehensive survey, by Lu Pan, Bethany L. Ehlmann, John Carter & Carolyn M. Ernst, which has recently been accepted for publication in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

Low- and Highlands

Topography of Mars. We can see lowlands in the North, and highlands in the South. © USGS
Topography of Mars. We can see lowlands in the North, and highlands in the South. © USGS

As you can see on this image, the topography of Mars can be divided into the Northern and the Southern hemispheres, the Northern one (actually about one third of the surface) being essentially constituted of plains, while the Southern one is made of mountains. The difference of elevation between these two hemispheres is between 1 to 3 km. Another difference is the fact that the Southern hemisphere is heavily cratered, even if craters exist in the lowlands. This Martian dichotomy is very difficult to explain, some explanations have been proposed, e.g., the lowlands could result from a single, giant impact, or the difference could be due to internal (tectonic) processes, which would have acted differentially, renewing the Northern hemisphere only… Anyway, whatever the cause, there is a dichotomy in the Martian topography. This study examines the lowlands.

The lowlands are separated into: Acidalia Planitia (for plain), Arcadia Planitia, Amazonis Planitia, Chryse Planitia, Isidis Planitia, Scandia Cavi (the polar region), Utopia Planitia, Vatistas Borealis,…

Plains also exist in the Southern hemisphere, like the Hellas and the Argyre Planitiae, which are probably impact basins. But this region is mostly known for Olympus Mons, which is the highest known mountain is the Solar System (altitude: 22 km), and the Tharsis Montes, which are 3 volcanoes in the Tharsis region.

To know the subsurface of a region, and its chemical composition, the easiest way is to dig… at least on Earth. On Mars, you are not supposed to affect the nature… Fortunately, the nature did the job for us, in bombarding the surface. This bombardment was particularly intense during the Noachian era, which correspond to the Late Heavy Bombardment, between 4.1 to 3.7 Gyr ago. The impacts excavated some material, that you just have to analyze with a spectrometer, provided the crater is preserved enough. This should then give you clues on the past of the region. Some say the lowlands might have supported a global ocean once.

The past ocean hypothesis

Liquid water seems to have existed at the surface of Mars, until some 3.5 Gyr ago. There are evidences of gullies and channels in the lowlands. This would have required the atmosphere of Mars to be much hotter, and probably thicker, than it is now. The hypothesis that the lowlands were entirely covered by an ocean has been proposed in 1987, and been supported by several data and studies since then, even if it is still controversial. Some features seem to be former shorelines, and evidences of two past tsunamis have been published in 2016. These evidences are channels created by former rivers, which flowed from down to the top. These tsunamis would have been the consequences of impacts, one of them being responsible for the crater Lomonosov.

The fate of this ocean is not clear. Part of it would have been evaporated in the atmosphere, and then lost in the space, part of it would have hydrated the subsurface, before freezing… This is how the study of this subsurface may participate in the debate.

The CRISM instrument

To study the chemical composition of the material excavated by the impacts, the authors used CRISM data. CRISM, for Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars, is an instrument of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). MRO is a NASA spacecraft, which orbits Mars since 2006.
CRISM is an imaging spectrometer, which can observe both in the visible and in the infrared ranges, which requires a rigorous cooling of the instrument. These multi-wavelengths observations permit to identify the different chemical elements composing the surface. The CRISM team summarizes its scientific goals by follow the water. Studying the chemical composition would permit to characterize the geology of Mars, and give clues on the past presence of liquid water, on the evolution of the Martian climate,…

In this study, the authors used CRISM data of 1,045 craters larger than 1 km, in the lowlands. They particularly focused on wavelengths between 1 and 2.6μm, which is convenient to identify hydrated minerals.

Hydrated vs. mafic minerals

The authors investigated different parts of the craters: the central peak, which might be constituted of the deepest material, the wall, the floor… The CRISM images should be treated, i.e. denoised before analysis. This requires to perform a photometric, then an atmospheric correction, to remove spikes, to eliminate dead pixels…

And after this treatment, the authors identified two kinds of minerals: mafic and hydrated ones. Mafic minerals are silicate minerals, in particular olivine and pyroxenes, which are rich in magnesium and iron, while hydrated minerals contain water. They in particular found a correlation between the size of the crater and the ratio mafic / hydrated, in the sense that mafic detections are less dependent on crater size. Which means that mafic minerals seem to be ubiquitous, while the larger the crater, the likelier the detection of hydrated minerals. Since larger craters result from more violent impacts, this suggests that hydrated minerals have a deeper origin. Moreover, no hydrated material has been found in the Arcadia Planitia, despite the analysis of 85 craters. They also noticed that less degraded craters have a higher probability of mineral detection, whatever the mineral.

However, the authors did not find evidence of concentrated salt deposits, which would have supported the past ocean hypothesis.

The study and the authors

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.

Chaotic dynamics of asteroids

Hi there! Today’s post deals with the fate of an asteroid family. You remember Datura? Now you have Hungaria! Datura is a very young family (< 500 kyr), now you have a very old one, i.e. probably more than 1 Gyr, and you will see that such a long time leaves room for many uncertainties… The paper I present is entitled Planetary chaos and the (In)stability of Hungaria asteroids, by Matija Ćuk and David Nesvorný, it has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The Hungaria asteroids

Usually an asteroid family is a cluster of asteroids in the space of the orbital elements (semimajor axis, eccentricity, inclination), which share, or a supposed to share, a common origin. This suggests that they would originate from the same large body, which would have been destroyed by a collision, its fragments then constituting an asteroid family. Identifying an asteroid family is not an easy task, because once you have identified a cluster, then you must make sure that the asteroids share common physical properties, i.e. composition. You can get this information from spectroscopy, i.e. in comparing their magnitudes in different wavelengths.

The following plot gives the semimajor axis / eccentricity repartition of the asteroids in the inner Solar System, with a magnitude smaller than 15.5. We can clearly see gaps and clusters. Remember that the Earth is at 1 UA, Mars at 1.5 UA, and Jupiter at 5.2. The group of asteroids sharing the orbit of Jupiter constitute the Trojan population. Hungaria is the one on the left, between 1.8 and 2 AU, named after the asteroid 434 Hungaria. The gap at its right corresponds to the 4:1 mean-motion resonance with Jupiter.

Distribution of the asteroids in the inner Solar System, with absolute magnitude < 15.5. Reproduced from the data of The Asteroidal Elements Database. Copyright: planetary-mechanics.com

If we look closer at the orbital elements of this Hungaria population, we also see a clustering on the eccentricity / inclination plot (just below).

Eccentricity / Inclination of the asteroids present in the Hungaria zone. Copyright: planetary-mechanics.com

This prompted Anne Lemaître (University of Namur, Belgium) to suggest in 1994 that Hungaria constituted an asteroid family. At that time, only 26 of these bodies were identified. We now know more than 4,000 of them.

The origin of this family can be questioned. The point is that these asteroids have different compositions, which would mean that they do not all come from the same body. In other words, only some of them constitute a family. Several dynamics studies, including the one I present today, have been conducted, which suggest that these bodies are very old (> 1 Gyr), and that their orbits might be pretty unstable over Gyrs… which suggests that it is currently emptying.

This raises two questions:

  1. What is the origin of the original Hungaria population?
  2. What is the fate of these bodies?

Beside the possible collisional origin, which is not satisfying for all of these bodies since they do not share the same composition, it has been proposed that they are the remnants of the E-Belt, which in some models of formation of the Solar System was a large population of asteroid, which have essentially been destabilized. Another possibility could be that asteroids might pass by and eventually be trapped in this zone, feeding the population.

Regarding the fate, the leaving asteroids could hit other bodies, or become Trojan of Jupiter, or… who knows? Many options seem possible.

The difficulty of giving a simple answer to these questions comes partly from the fact that these bodies have a chaotic dynamics… but what does that mean?

Chaos, predictability, hyperbolicity, frequency diffusion, stability,… in celestial dynamics

Chaos is a pretty complicated mathematical and physical notion, which has several definitions. A popular one is made by the American mathematician Robert L. Devaney, who said that a system is chaotic if it has sensitive dependence on initial conditions, it is topologically transitive (for any two open sets, some points from one set will eventually hit the other set), and its periodic orbits form a dense set.

Let us make things a little simpler: in celestial mechanics, you assume to have chaos when you are sensitive to the initial conditions, i.e. if you try to simulate the motion of an object with a given uncertainty on its initial conditions, the uncertainties on its future will grow exponentially, making predictions impossible beyond a certain time, which is related to the Lyapunov time. But to be rigorous, this is the definition of hyperbolicity, not of chaos… but never mind.

A chaotic orbit is often thought to be unstable. This is sometimes true, especially if the eccentricity of your object becomes large… but this is not always the same. Contrarily, you can have stable chaos, in which you know that your object is not lost, it is in a given bounded zone… but you cannot be more accurate than that.

Chaos can also be related to the KAM theory (for Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser), which says that when you are chaotic, you have no tores in the dynamics, i.e. periodic orbits. When your orbit is periodic, its orbital frequency is constant. If this frequency varies, then you can suspect chaos… but this is actually frequency diffusion.

And now, since I have confused you enough with the theory, comes another question: what is responsible for chaos? The gravitational action of the other bodies, of course! But this is not a satisfying answer, since a gravitational system is not always chaotic. There are actually many configurations in which a gravitational system could be chaotic. An obvious one is when you have a close encounter with a massive object. An other one is when your object is under the influence of several overlapping mean-motion resonances (Chirikov criterion).

This study is related to the chaos induced by the gravitational action of Mars.

The orbit of Mars

Mars orbits the Sun in 687 days (1.88 year), with an inclination of 1.85° with respect to the ecliptic (the orbit of the Earth), and an eccentricity of 0.0934. This is a pretty large number, which means that the distance Mars – Sun experiences some high amplitude variations. All this is valid for now.

But since the Hungaria asteroids are thought to be present for more than 1 Gyr, a study of their dynamics should consider the variations of the orbit of Mars over such a very long time-span. And this is actually a problem, since the chaos in the inner Solar System prevents you from being accurate enough over such a duration. Recent backward numerical simulations of the orbits of the planets of the Solar System by J. Laskar (Paris Observatory), in which many close initial conditions were considered, led to a statistical description of the past eccentricity of Mars. Some 500 Myr ago, the eccentricity of Mars was most probably close to the current one, but it could also have been close to 0, or close to 0.15… actually it could have taken any number between 0 and 0.15.

The uncertainty on the past eccentricity of Mars leads uncertainty on the past orbital behavior of Solar System objects, including the stability of asteroids. At least two destabilizing processes should be considered: possible close encounters with Mars, and resonances.

Among the resonances likely to destabilize the asteroids over the long term are the gi (i between 1 and 10) and the fj modes. These are secular resonances, i.e. involving the pericentres (g-modes) and the nodes (f-modes) of the planets, the g-modes being doped by the eccentricities, and the f-modes by the inclinations. These modes were originally derived by Brouwer and van Woerkom in 1950, from a secular theory of the eight planets of the Solar System, Pluto having been neglected at that time.

The eccentricity of Mars particularly affects the g4 mode.

This paper

This paper consists of numerical integrations of clones of known asteroids in the Hungaria region. By clones I mean that the motion of each asteroid is simulated several times (21 in this study), with slightly different initial conditions, over 1 Gyr. The authors wanted in particular to test the effect of the uncertainty on the past eccentricity of Mars. For that, they considered two cases: HIGH and LOW.

And the conclusion is this: in the HIGH case, i.e. past high eccentricity of Mars (up to 0.142), less asteroids survive, but only if they experienced close encounters with Mars. In other words, no effect of the secular resonance was detected. This somehow contradicts previous studies, which concluded that the Hungaria population is currently decaying. An explanation for that is that in such phenomena, you often have a remaining tail of stable objects. And it seems make sense to suppose that the currently present objects are this tail, so they are the most stable objects of the original population.

Anyway, this study adds conclusions to previous ones, without unveiling the origin of the Hungaria population. It is pretty frustrating to have no definitive conclusion, but we must keep in mind that we cannot be accurate over 1 Gyr, and that there are several competing models of the evolution of the primordial Solar System, which do not affect the asteroid population in the same way. So, we must admit that we will not know everything.

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.

The surface of Mars is fractal

Hi there! Today’s post is a pretty much different than usual. I will present you a mathematical analysis of planetary features. More precisely, a paper investigating the fractal structure of the surface of Mars. This is a paper entitled Mars topography investigated through the wavelet method: A multidimensional study of its fractal structure, by Adrien Deliège, Thomas Kleyntssens and Samuel Nicolay, which has been recently published in Planetary and Space Science. This study has been conducted at the University of Liège (Belgium).

The surface of Mars

The Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), as instrument of Mars Global Surveyor, provided us a very accurate map of the whole surface of Mars, which is far from boring. It has for instance an hemispheric asymmetry, the Northern hemispheric being composed of pretty flat, new terrains, which the Southern one is very cratered (several thousands of craters). The northern new terrains are made of lava, which is a fingerprint of past geophysical activity. Moreover, Mars has two icy polar caps.

Among the remarkable features are:

  • Olympus Mons, which is the highest known mountain in the Solar System. This is a former volcano, which rises 22 km above the surrounding volcanic plains.
  • The Tharsis region, which contains many volcanoes.
  • Hellas Planitia, which is a huge impact basin (diameter: 2300 km, depth: 7 km), located in the Southern hemisphere.

You can find below an annotated map, please click!

The topology of Mars. Credit: USGS Astrogeology Science Center

The mission Mars Global Surveyor

The missions Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) is a NASA mission, which has been launched in November 1996, and has been inserted into orbit around Mars 10 months later, i.e. September 1997. It became silent in November 2006 after 3 extensions of the nominal mission, and gave us invaluable data during almost 10 years. It embarked 5 scientific instruments:

  • the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC), a wide angle camera which gave us images of the surface and of the two satellites of Mars Phobos and Deimos,
  • the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), which gave us the most accurate topographic measurements of Mars. The study I present today uses its data,
  • the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES), which studied the atmosphere of Mars, and the thermal emission of the surface. This instrument observed in the infrared band,
  • the magnetometer, which studied the magnetic field of Mars,
  • and the radio-science, which measured the gravity field of the planet.

Mars Global Surveyor was of great help to prepare the further missions. It allowed in particular to identify landing sites for rovers.

The rich topography of Mars has encouraged many scientists to characterize it with a fractal structure.

Fractals and multifractals

A fractal is a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern displayed at every scale, see the following figure, which shows the well-known Mandelbrot set.

The Mandelbrot set, plotted by myself after an inspiration from Rosetta Code. The zoom on the right shows the same structure than on the left, with a larger scale.

It is tempting to quantify the “fractality” of such a set. A convenient indicator is the Hausdorff dimension, which is an extension of the dimension of a space. A line is a space of dimension 1, a plane is of dimension 2, and a volume of dimension 3. Now, if you look at the Mandelbrot set, for instance, its contour is a line of infinite length (actually depending on the resolution of the plot), which tends to fill the plane, but does not fill it entirely. So, it makes sense that its dimension should be a real number larger than 1 and smaller than 2. The Hausdorff dimension quantifies how a fractal set fills the space. The Hausdorff dimension of the Mandelbrot set is 2, the one of the coastline of Great-Britain is 1.25, and the one of the coastline of Norway is 1.52.

For a natural object, things are not necessarily that easy, in the sense that some parts of the objects could look like a fractal, and some not, or look like another fractal. Then the object is said multifractal.

The Hausdorff dimension is not the only possible measure of a fractal object. In the paper I present today, the authors use the Hölder exponent, which represents how continuous the function is. Here, the function is the height of a terrain, it depends on its coordinates, i.e. longitude and latitude, on the surface of Mars. The Hölder exponent is usually more appropriate for sets of numerical data.

The wavelet transforms

The wavelet transform is a mathematical transform, which aims at measuring the periodicity of a phenomenon, and gives the amplitude of a periodic contribution, at a given period. In our case, the idea is to measure periodic patterns in the spatial evolution of the height of the surface of Mars.
For that, the authors use more specifically the wavelet leaders methods, which will in particular give them the Hölder exponent, and tell them how (mono)fractal / multifractal the topography of Mars is.


The “fractality” actually depends on the scale you are considering. The authors disposed of MOLA data, with a resolution of 0.463 km. They analyzed them twice, once in performing 1-D analyses, in considering the longitude and the latitude independently, and once in a 2-dimensional analysis, which is probably new in this context. And here are their results:

  • The surface of Mars is monofractal if you look at it at scales smaller than 15 km.
  • It is multifractal for scales larger than 60 km (the authors considered that the range 15-60 km is a transtition zone).
  • The “monofractality” is better in longitude than in latitude. This could be due to the hemispherical asymmetry of Mars, to the polar caps, and / or to the fact that the representation surface is just a planar projection, which necessarily alters it.
  • Some features can be detected from the variations of the Hölder exponent, especially the plains. However, this technique seems to fail for the volcanoes.

Some links

That’s it for today! I hope you enjoyed this post. I particularly like the idea to give a mathematical representation of a natural object. Please feel free to comment! You can also subscribe to the Twitter @planetmechanix and to the RSS feed.