Tag Archives: numerical methods

The system of (107) Camilla

Hi there! I will present you today a fascinating paper. It aims at a comprehensive understanding of the system composed of an asteroid, (107) Camilla, and its two satellites. For that, the authors acquired, processed and used 5 different types of observations, from all over the world. A consequence is that this paper has many authors, i.e. 27. Its title is Physical, spectral, and dynamical properties of asteroid (107) Camilla and its satellites, by Myriam Pajuelo and 26 colleagues, and it has recently been published in Icarus. This paper gives us the shape of Camilla and its main satellites, their orbits, the mass of Camilla, its composition, its spin period,… I give you these results below.

The system of Camilla

The asteroid (107) Camilla has been discovered in 1868 by Norman Pogson at Madras Observatory, India. It is located in the
outer Main-Belt, and more precisely it is a member of the Cybele group. This is a group of asteroids, named after the largest of them (65) Cybele, which is thought to have a common origin. They probably originate from the disruption of a single progenitor. I show you below some Camilla’s facts, taken from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser:

Discovery 1868
Semimajor axis 3.49 AU
Eccentricity 0.066
Perihelion 3.26 AU
Inclination 10.0°
Orbital period 6.52 yr

We have of course other data, which have been improved by the present study. Please by a little patient.

In 2001 the Hubble Space Telescope revealed a satellite of Camilla, S1, while the second satellite, S2, and has been discovered in 2016 from images acquired by the Very Large Telescope of Cerro Paranal, Chile. This makes (107) Camilla a ternary system. Interesting fact, there is at least another ternary system in the Cybele group: the one formed by (87) Sylvia, and its two satellites Romulus and Remus.

Since their discoveries, these bodies have been re-observed when possible. This resulted in a accumulation of different data, all of them having been used in this study.

5 different types of data

The authors acquired and used:

  • optical lightcurves,
  • high-angular-resolution images,
  • high-angular-resolution spectrum,
  • stellar occultations,
  • near-infrared spectroscopy.

You record optical lightcurves in measuring the variations of the solar flux, which is reflected by the object. This results in a curve exhibiting periodic variations. You can link their period to the spin period of the asteroid, and their amplitudes to its shape. I show you an example of lightcurve here.

High-angular-resolution imaging requires high-performance facilities. The authors used data from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), and of 3 ground-based telescopes, equipped with adaptive optics: Gemini North, European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope (VLT), and Keck. Adaptive optics permits to correct the images from atmospheric distortion, while the HST, as a space telescope, is not hampered by our atmosphere. In other words, our atmosphere bothers the accurate observations of such small objects.

A spectrum is the amplitude of the reflected Solar light, with respect to its wavelength. This permits to infer the composition of the surface of the body. The high-angular-resolution spectrum were made at the VLT, the resulting data also permitting astrometry of the smallest of the satellites, S2. These spectrum were supplemented by near-infrared spectroscopy, made with a dedicated facility, i.e. the SpeX spectrograph of the NASA InfraRed Telescope Facility (IRTF), based on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Infrared is very sensitive to the temperature, this is why their observations require dedicated instruments, which need a dedicated cooling system.

Finally, stellar occultations consist to record the light of a star, which as some point is occulted by the asteroid you study. This is particularly interesting for a faint body, which you cannot directly observe. Such observations can be made by volunteers, who use their own telescopes. You can deduce clues on the shape, and sometimes on the presence of a satellite, from the duration of the occultation. In comparing the durations of the same occultation, recorded at different locations, you may even reconstruct the shape (actually a 2-D shape, which is projected on the celestial sphere). See here.

And from all this, you can infer the orbits of the satellites, and the composition of the primary (Camilla) and its main satellite (S1), and the spin and shape of Camilla.

The orbits of the satellites

All of these observations permit astrometry, i.e. they give you the relative location of the satellites with respect to Camilla, at given dates. From all of these observations, you fit orbits, i.e. you numerically determine the orbits, which have the smallest distances (residuals), with the data.

This is a very tough task, given the uncertainty of the recorded positions. For that, the authors used their own genetic-based algorithm, Genoid, for GENetic Orbit IDentification, which relies on a metaheuristic method to minimize the residuals. Many trajectories are challenged in this iterative approach, and only the best ones are kept. These remaining trajectories, designed as parents, are used to generate new trajectories which improve the residuals. This algorithm has proven its efficiency for other systems, like the binary asteroid (22) Kalliope-Linus. In such cases, the observations lack of accuracy and many parameters are involved.

You can find the results below.

S/2001 (107) 1
Semimajor axis 1247.8±3.8 km
Eccentricity <0.013
Inclination (16.0±2.3)°
Orbital period 3.71234±0.00004 d
S/2016 (107) 2
Semimajor axis 643.8±3.9 km
Eccentricity ~0.18 (<0.23)
Inclination (27.7±21.8)°
Orbital period 1.376±0.016 d

You can deduce the mass of (107) Camilla from these numbers, i.e. (1.12±0.01)x1019 kg. The ratio of two orbital periods probably rule out any significant mean-motion resonance between these two satellites.

Spin and shape

The authors used their homemade algorithm KOALA (Knitted Occultation, Adaptive-optics, and Lightcurve Analysis) to determine the best-fit solution (once more, minimization of the residuals) for spin period, orientation of the rotation pole, and 3-D shape model, from lightcurves, adaptive optics images, and stellar occultations. And you can find the solution below:

Camilla
Diameter 254±36 km
a 340±36 km
b 249±36 km
c 197±36 km
Spin period 4.843927±0.00004 h

This table gives two solutions for the shape: a spherical one, and an ellipsoid. In this last solution, a, b, and c are the three diameters. We can see in particular that Camilla is highly elongated. Actually a comparison between the data and this ellipsoid, named the reference ellipsoid, revealed two deep and circular basins at the surface of Camilla.

Moreover, a comparison of the relative magnitudes of Camilla and its two satellites, and the use of the diameter of Camilla as a reference, give an estimation of the diameters of the two satellites. These are 12.7±3.5 km for S1 and 4.0±1.2 km for S2. These numbers assume that S1 and S2 have the same albedo. This assumption is supported for S1 by the comparison of its spectrum from the one of Camilla.

The composition of these objects

In combining the shape of Camilla with its mass, the authors deduce its density, which is 1,280±130 kg/m3. This is slightly larger than water, while silicates should dominate the composition. As the authors point out, there might be some water ice in Camilla, but this pretty small density is probably due to the porosity of the asteroid.

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.

Origin and fate of a binary TNO

Hi there! I have already told you about these Trans-Neptunian Objects, which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. It appears that some of them, i.e. 81 as far as we know, are binaries. As far as we know actually means that there are probably many more. These are in fact systems of 2 objects, which orbit together.

The study I present you today, The journey of Typhon-Echidna as a binary system through the planetary region, by Rosana Araujo, Mattia Galiazzo, Othon Winter and Rafael Sfair, simulates the past and future orbital motion of such a system, to investigate its origin and its fate. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Binary objects

Imagine two bodies, which are so close to each other that they interact gravitationally. You can say, OK, this is the case for the Sun and the planets, for the Earth and the Moon, for Jupiter and its satellites… Very well, but in all of those cases, one body, which we will name the primary, is much heavier than the other ones. This results as small bodies orbiting around the primary. But what happens when the mass ratio between these two bodies is rather close to unity, i.e. when two bodies of similar mass interact? Well, in that case, what we call the barycenter of the system, or the gravity center, is not close to the center of the primary, it is in fact somewhere between the two bodies. And the two bodies orbit around it. We call such a system a binary.

Binary systems may exist at every size. I am not aware of known binary giant planets, and certainly not in the Solar System, but we have binary asteroids, binary stars… and theory even predicts the existence of binary black holes! We will here restrict to binary asteroids (in the present case, binary minor planets may be more appropriate… please forgive me that).

So, you have these two similar bodies, of roughly the same size, which orbit together… their system orbiting around the Sun. A well-known example is the binary Pluto-Charon, which itself has small satellites. Currently some approximately 300 binary asteroids are known, 81 of them in the Trans-Neptunian region. The other ones are in the Main Belt and among the Near-Earth Asteroids. This last population could be the most populated by binaries, not only thanks to an observational bias (they are the easiest ones to observe, aren’t they?), but also because the YORP effect favors the fission of these Near-Earth Asteroids.

Anyway, the binary system we are interested in is located in what the authors call the TNO-Centaurs region.

The TNOs-Centaurs region

The name of that region of the Solar System may seem odd, it is due to a lack of consistency in the literature. Basically, the Trans-Neptunian region is the one beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the Centaurs are the asteroids orbiting between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune. This would be very clear if the orbit of Neptune was a legal border… but it is not. What happens when the asteroid orbits on average beyond Neptune, but is sometimes inside? You have it: some call these bodies TNO-Centaurs. Actually they are determined following two conditions:

  1. The semimajor axis must be larger than the one of Neptune, i.e. 30.110387 astronomical units (AU),
  2. and the distance between the Sun and the perihelion should be below that number, the perihelion being the point of the orbit, which is the closest to the Sun.

The distance between the Sun and the asteroid varies when the orbit is not circular, i.e. has a non-null eccentricity, making it elliptic.

When I speak of the orbit of an asteroid, that should be understood as the orbit of the barycenter, for a binary. And the authors recall us that there are two known binary systems in this TNOs-Centaurs region: (42355) Typhon-Echidna, and (65489) Ceto-Phorcys. Today we are interested by (42355) Typhon-Echidna.

(42355) Typhon-Echidna

(42355) Typhon has been discovered in February 2002 by the NEAT program (Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking). This was a survey operating between 1995 and 2007 at Palomar Observatory in California. It was jointly run by the NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You can find below some orbital and characteristics of the binary around the Sun, from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser:

Typhon-Echidna
Semimajor axis 38.19 AU
Eccentricity 0.54
Perihelion 17.57 AU
Inclination 2.43°
Orbital period 236.04 yr

As you can see, the orbit is very eccentric, which explains why the binary is considered to be in this gray zone at the border between the Centaurs and the TNOs.

Discovery of Typhon in Feb. 2002, then known as 2002 CR<sub>46</sub>. © NEAT
Discovery of Typhon in Feb. 2002, then known as 2002 CR<sub>46</sub>. © NEAT

And you can find below the orbital characteristics of the orbit of Echidna, which was discovered in 2006:

Semimajor axis 1580 ± 20 km
Eccentricity 0.507 ± 0.009
Inclination 42° ± 2°
Orbital period 18.982 ± 0.001 d

These data have been taken from Johnston’s Archive. Once more, you can see a very eccentric orbit. Such high eccentricities do not look good for the future stability of the object… and this will be confirmed by this study.

In addition to these data, let me add that the diameters of these two bodies are 162 ± 7 and 89 ±6 km, respectively, Typhon being the largest one. Moreover, water ice has been detected on Typhon, which means that it could present some cometary activity if it gets closer to the Sun.

The remarkable orbit of the binary, which is almost unique since only two binaries are known in the TNOs-Centaurs region, supplemented by the fact it is a binary, motivated the authors to specifically study its long-term orbital migration in the Solar System. In other words, its journey from its past to its death.

It should originate from the TNOs-Centaurs region

For investigating this, the authors started from the known initial conditions of the binary, seen as a point mass. In other words, they considered only one object in each simulation, with initial orbital elements very close to the current ones. They ran in fact 100 backward numerical simulations, differing by the initial conditions, provided they were consistent with our knowledge of them. They had to be in the confidence interval.

In all of these trajectories, the gravitational influence of the planets from Venus to Neptune, and of Pluto, was included. They ran these 100 backward simulations over 100 Myr, in using an adaptive time-step algorithm from the integrator Mercury. I do not want to go too deep in the specific, but keep in mind that this algorithm is symplectic, which implies that it should remain accurate for long-term integrations. An important point is the adaptive time-step: when you run numerical integrations, you express the positions and velocities at given dates. The separation between these dates, i.e. the time-step, depends on the variability of the force you apply. The specificity of the dynamics of such eccentric bodies is that they are very sensitive to close encounters with planets, especially (but not only) the giant ones. In that case, you need a pretty short time-step, but only when you are close to the planet. When you are far, it is more advisable to use a larger time-step. Not only to go faster, but also to prevent the accumulation of round-off errors.

It results from these backward simulations that most of the clones of Typhon are still in the TNOs-Centaurs regions 100 Myr ago.

But the authors also investigated the fate of Typhon!

It should be destroyed before 200 Myr

For that, they used the same algorithm to run 500 forward trajectories. And this is where things may become dramatic: Typhon should not survive. In none of them. The best survivor is destroyed after 163 Myr, which is pretty short with respect to the age of the Solar System… but actually very optimistic.

Only 20% of the clones survive after 20 Myr, and the authors estimate the median survival time to be 5.2 Myr. Typhon is doomed! And the reason for that is the close encounters with the planets. The most efficient killer is unsurprisingly Jupiter, because of its large mass.

Interestingly, 42 of these clones entered the inner Solar System. This is why we cannot exclude a future cometary activity of Typhon: in getting closer to the Sun, it will warm, and the water ice may sublimate.

All of these simulations have considered the binary to be a point-mass. Investigating whether it will remain a binary requires other, dedicated simulations.

Will it remain a binary?

The relevant time-step for a binary is much shorter than for a point mass, just because the orbital period of Typhon around the Sun is 236 years, while the one of Echidna around Typhon is only 19 days! This also implies that a full trajectory, over 200 Myr, will require so many iterations that it should suffer from numerical approximations. The authors by-passed this problem in restricting to the close encounters with planets. When they detected a close encounter in an orbital simulation of Typhon, they ran 12,960 simulations of the orbit of Echidna over one year. Once more, these simulations differ by the initial conditions, here the initial orbital elements of Echidna around Typhon.

The authors concluded that it is highly probable that the binary survived close encounters with planets, as a binary. In other words, if Typhon survives, then Echidna should survive.

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.

New chaos indicators

Hi there! Today it is a little bit different. I will not tell you about something that has been observed but rather of a more general concept, which is the chaos in the Solar System. This is the opportunity to present you Second-order chaos indicators MEGNO2 and OMEGNO2: Theory, by Vladimir A. Shefer. This study has been originally published in Russian, but you can find an English translation in the Russian Physics Journal.

To present you this theoretical study, I need to define some useful notions related to chaos. First is the sensitivity to the initial conditions.

Sensitivity to the initial conditions

Imagine you are a planetary body. I put you somewhere in the Solar System. This somewhere is your initial condition, actually composed of 6 elements: 3 for the position, and 3 for the velocity. So, I put you there, and you evolve, under the gravitational interaction of the other guys, basically the Sun and the planets of the Solar System. You then have a trajectory, which should be an orbit around the Sun, with some disturbances of the planets. What would have happened if your initial condition would have been slightly different? Well, you expect your trajectory to have been slightly different, i.e. pretty close.

Does it always happen this way? Actually, not always. Sometimes yes, but sometimes… imagine you have a close encounter with a planet (hopefully not the Earth). During the encounter, you are very sensitive to the gravitational perturbation of that planet. And if you arrive a little closer, or a little further, then that may change your trajectory a lot, since the perturbation depends on the distance to the planet. In such a case, you are very sensitive to the initial conditions.

What does that mean? It actually means that if you are not accurate enough on the initial condition, then your predicted trajectory will lack of accuracy. And beyond a certain point, predicting will just be pointless. This point can be somehow quantified with the Lyapunov time, see a little later.

An example of body likely to have close encounters with the Earth is the asteroid (99942) Apophis, which was discovered in 2004, and has sometimes close encounters with the Earth. There was one in 2013, there will be another one in 2029, and then in 2036. But risks of impact are ruled out, don’t worry. 🙂

Let us talk now about the problem of stability.

Stability

A stable orbit is an orbit which stays around the central body. A famous and recent example of unstable orbit is 1I/’Oumuamua, you know, our interstellar visitor. It comes from another planetary system, and passes by, on a hyperbolic orbit. No chaos in that case.

But sometimes, an initially stable orbit may become unstable because of an accumulation of gravitational interactions, which raise its eccentricity, which then exceeds 1. And this is where you may connect instability with sensitivity to initial conditions, and chaos. But this is not the same. And you can even be stable while chaotic.

Now, let us define a related (but different) notion, which is the diffusion of the fundamental frequencies.

Diffusion of the Fundamental Frequencies

Imagine you are on a stable, classical orbit, i.e. an ellipse. The Sun lies at one of its foci, and you have an orbital frequency, a precessional frequency of your pericenter, and a frequency related to the motion of your ascending node. All of these points have a motion around the Sun, with constant velocities. So, the orbit can be described with 3 fundamental frequencies. If your orbit is perturbed by other bodies, which have their own fundamental frequencies, then you will find them as additional frequencies in your trajectory. Very well. If the trajectories remain constant, then it can be topologically said that your trajectories lies on tori.

Things become more complicated when you have a drift of these fundamental frequencies. It is very often related to chaos, and sometimes considered as an indicator of it. In such a case, the tori are said to be destroyed. And we have theorems, which address the survival of these tori.

The KAM and the Nekhoroshev theorems

The most two famous of them are the KAM and the Nekhoroshev theorems.

KAM stands for Kolmogorov-Arnold-Moser, which were 3 famous mathematicians, specialists of dynamical systems. These problems are indeed not specific to astronomy or planetology, but to any physical system, in which we neglect the dissipation.

The KAM theorem says that, for a slightly perturbed integrable system (allow me not to develop this point… just keep in mind that the 2-body problem is integrable), some tori survive, which means that you can have regular (non chaotic) orbits anyway. But some of them may be not. This theorem needs several assumptions, which may be difficult to fulfill when you have too many bodies.

The Nekhoroshev theory addresses the effective stability of destroyed tori. If the perturbation is small enough, then the trajectories, even not exactly on tori, will remain close enough to them over an exponentially long time, i.e. longer than the age of the Solar System. So, you may be chaotic, unstable… but remain anyway where you are.

Chaos is related to all of these notions, actually there are several definitions of chaos in the literature. Consider it as a mixture of all the elements I gave you. In particular the sensitivity to the initial conditions.

Chaos in the Solar System

Chaos has been observed in the Solar System. The first observation is the tumbling rotation of the satellite of Saturn Hyperion (see featured image). So, not an orbital case. Chaos has also been characterized in the motion of asteroids, for instance the Main-Belt asteroid (522) Helga has been proven to be in stable chaos in 1992 (see here). It is in fact swinging between two mean-motion resonances with Jupiter (Chirikov criterion), which confine its motion, but make it difficult to predict anyway. The associated Lyapunov time is 6.9 kyr.

There are also chaotic features in the rings of Saturn, which are due to the accumulation of resonances with satellites so close to the planet. These effects are even raised by the non-linear self-dynamics of the rings, in which the particles interact and collide. And the inner planets of the Solar System are chaotic over some 10s of Myr, this has been proven by long-term numerical integrations of their orbits.

To quantify this chaos, you need the Lyapunov time.

The maximal Lyapunov exponent

The Lyapunov time is the invert of the Lyapunov exponent. To estimate the Lyapunov exponent, you numerically integrate the trajectory, and its tangent vector. When the orbit is chaotic, the norm of this vector will grow exponentially, and the Lyapunov exponent is the asymptotic limit of the divergence rate of this exponential growth. It is strictly positive in case of chaos. Easy, isn’t it?

Not that easy, actually. The exponential growth makes that this norm might be too large and generate numerical errors, but this can be fixed in regularly, i.e. at equally spaced time intervals, renormalizing the tangent vector. Another problem is in the asymptotic limit: you may have to integrate over a verrrrrry long time to reach it. To bypass this problem of convergence, other indicators have been invented.

To go faster: FLI and MEGNO

FLI stands for Fast Lyapunov Indicators. There are several variants, the most basic one consists in stopping the integration at a given time. So, you give up the asymptotic limit, and you give up the Lyapunov time, but you can efficiently distinguish the regular orbits from the chaotic ones. This is a good point.

Another chaos detector is the MEGNO, for Mean Exponential Growth of Nearby Orbits. This consists to integrate the norm of the time derivative of the tangent vector divided by the norm of the tangent vector. The result tends to a straight line, which slope is half the maximal Lyapunov exponent. And this tool converges very fast. The author of the study I present you wishes to improve that tool.

This study presents MEGNO2

And for that, he presents us MEGNO2. This works like MEGNO, but with an osculating vector instead of a tangent one. Tangent means that this vector fits to a line tangent to the trajectory, while osculating means that it fits to its curvature as well, i.e. second order derivative. In other words, it is more accurate.

From this, the author shows that, like MEGNO, MEGNO2 tends to a straight line, but with a larger slope. As a consequence, he argues that it permits a more efficient detection of the chaotic orbits with respect to the regular ones. However, he does not address the link between this new slope and the Lyapunov time.

Something that my writing does not render, is that this paper is full of equations. Fair enough, for what I could call mathematical planetology.

The study and its author

As it often happens for purely theoretical studies, this one has only one author.

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.

2010 JO179: a new, resonant dwarf planet

Hi there! Today I present you the discovery of a Trans-Neptunian Object, you know, these objects which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. And I particularly like that one, since its orbit resonates with the one of Neptune. Don’t worry, I will explain you all this, keep in mind for now that this object is probably one of the most stable. Anyway, this is the opportunity to present you A dwarf planet class object in the 21: 5 resonance with Neptune by M.J. Holman and collaborators. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Trans-Neptunian Objects

The Trans-Neptunians Objects are small bodies, which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune, i.e. with a semimajor axis larger than 30 AU. The first discovered one is the well-known Pluto, in 1930. It was then, and until 2006, considered as the ninth planet of the Solar System. It was the only known TNO until 1992. While I am writing this, 2482 are listed on the JPL small-body database search engine.

The TNOs are often classified as the Kuiper-Belt objects, the scattered disc objects, and the Oort cloud. I do not feel these are official classifications, and there are sometimes inconsistencies between the different sources. Basically, the Kuiper-Belt objects are the ones, which orbits are not too much eccentric, not too inclined, and not too far (even if these objects orbit very far from us). The scattered disc objects have more eccentric and inclined orbits, and these dynamics could be due to chaotic / resonant excitation by the gravitational action of the planets. And the Oort cloud could be seen as the frontier of our Solar System. It is a theoretical cloud located between 50,000 and 200,000 Astronomical Units. Comets may originate from there. Its location makes it sensitive to the action of other stars, and to the Galactic tide, i.e. the deformation of our Galaxy.

The object I present you today, 2010 JO179, could be a scattered disc object. It has been discovered in 2010, thanks to the Pan-STARRS survey.

The Pan-STARRS survey

Pan-STARRS, for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, is a systematic survey of the sky. Its facilities are located at Haleakala Observatory, Hawaii, and currently consist of two 1.8m-Ritchey–Chrétien telescopes. It operates since 2010, and discovered small Solar System objects, the interstellar visitor 1I/’Oumuamua… It observes in 5 wavelengths from infrared to visible.

The Pan-STARRS1 telescope. © Pan-STARRS
The Pan-STARRS1 telescope. © Pan-STARRS

The data consist of high-accuracy images of the sky, containing a huge amount of data. Beyond discoveries, these data permit an accurate astrometry of the object present on the images, which is useful for understanding their motion and determining their orbits. They also allow a determination of the activity of variable objects, i.e. variable stars, a study of their surface from their spectrum in the five wavelengths, and (for instance) the measurement of their rotation. A very nice tool anyway!

Pan-STARRS delivered its first data release in December 2016, while the DR2 (Data Release 2) is scheduled for mid-2018… pretty soon actually.

Among the discovered objects are the one we are interested in today, i.e. 2010 JO179.

Identifying the new object

The first observation of 2010 JO179 dates back from May 2010, and it has been detected 24 times during 12 nights, until July 2016. The detections are made in comparing the Pan-STARRS data from the known objects. Once something unknown appears in the data, leaving what the authors call a tracklet, its motion is extrapolated to predict its position at different dates, to investigate whether it is present on other images, another time. From 3 detections, the algorithm makes a more systematic search of additional tracklets, and in case of positive additional detection, then an orbit is fitted. The orbital characteristics (and other properties) are listed below.

Semimajor axis 78.307±0.009 AU
Eccentricity 0.49781±0.00005
Inclination 32.04342±0.00001 °
Orbital period 6663.757±0.002 yr
Diameter 600-900 km
Absolute magnitude 3.4±0.1

You can notice the high accuracy of the orbital parameters, which almost looks like a miracle for such a distant object. This is due to the number of detections, and the accuracy of the astrometry with Pan-STARRS. Once an object is discovered, you know where it is, or at least where it is supposed to be. Thanks to this knowledge, it was possible to detect 2010 JO179 on data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, taken in New Mexico, and on data from the DECalS survey, taken in Chile. Moreover, 2010 JO179 was intentionally observed with the New Technology Telescope (NTT) in La Silla, Chile.

The spectroscopy (analysis of the reflected light at different wavelengths) of 2010 JO179 revealed a moderately red object, which is common for TNOs.

Measuring its rotation

This is something I have already evoked in previous articles. When you record the light flux reflected by the surface of a planetary body, you should observe some periodic variability, which is linked to its rotation. From the observations, you should extract (or try to) a period, which may not be an easy task regarding the sparsity and the accuracy of the observations.

In using the so-called Lomb-Scargle algorithm, the authors detected two possible periods, which are 30.6324 hours, and 61.2649 hours… i.e. twice the former number. These are best-fits, i.e. you try to fit a sinusoid to the recorded light, and these are the periods you get. The associated amplitudes are variations of magnitude of 0.46 and 0.5, respectively. In other words, the authors have two solutions, they favor the first one since it would imply a too elongated asteroid. Anyway, you can say that twice 30.6324 hours is a period as well, but what we call the spin period is the smallest non-null duration, which leaves the light flux (pretty) invariant. So, the measured spin period of 2010 JO179 is 30.6324 hours, which makes it a slow rotator.

Mean-motion resonances

Let us make a break on the specific case of 2010 JO179 (shall we give it a nickname anyway?), since I would like to recall you something on the mean-motion resonances before.

When two planetary bodies orbit the Sun, they perturb each other. It can be shown that when the ratio of their orbital periods (similarly the ratio of their orbital frequencies) is rational, i.e. is one integer divided by another one, then you are in a dynamical situation of commensurability, or quasi-resonance. A well known case is the 5:2 configuration between Jupiter and Saturn, i.e. Jupiter makes 5 orbits around the Sun while Saturn makes 2. In such a case, the orbital perturbations are enhanced, and you can either be very stable, or have a chaotic orbit, in which the eccentricities and inclinations could raise, the orbit become unpredictable beyond a certain time horizon (Lyapunov time), and even a body be ejected.

Mathematically, an expansion of the so-called perturbing function, or the perturbing mutual gravitational potential, would display a sum of sinusoidal term containing resonant arguments, which would have long-term effects. These arguments would read as pλ1-(p+q)λ2+q1ϖ1+q2ϖ2+q3Ω1+q4Ω2, with q=q1+q2+q3+q4. The subscripts 1 and 2 are for the two bodies (in our case, 1 will stand for Neptune, and 2 for JO 2010179), λ are their mean longitudes, ϖ their longitudes of pericentres, and Ω the longitudes of their ascending nodes.

In a perturbed case, which may happen for high eccentricities and inclinations, resonances involving several arguments may overlap, and induce a chaotic dynamics that could be stable… or not. You need to simulate the long-term dynamics to know more about that.

A resonant long-term dynamics

It appears that Neptune and 2010 JO179 are very close to the 21:5 mean-motion resonance (p=5, q=16). To inquire this, the authors ran 100 numerical simulations of the orbital motion of 2010 JO179, with slightly different initial conditions which are consistent with the uncertainty of the observations, over 700 Myr. And they saw that 2010 JO179 could be trapped in a resonance, with argument 5λ1-21λ2+16ϖ2. In about 25% of the simulations, JO179 remains trapped, which implies that the resonant argument is librating, i.e. bounded, all over the simulation. As a consequence, this suggests that its orbit is very stable, which is remarkable given its very high eccentricity (almost 0.5).

The study and its authors

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9 interstellar asteroids?

Hi there! You may have recently heard of 1I/’Oumuamua, initially known as C/2017 U1, then A/2017 U1 (see here), where C stands for comet, A for asteroid, and I for interstellar object. This small body visited us last fall on a hyperbolic orbit, i.e. it came very fast from very far away, flew us by, and then left… and we shall never see it again. ‘Oumuamua has probably been formed in another planetary system, and its visit has motivated numerous studies. Some observed it to determine its shape, its composition, its rotation… and some conducted theoretical studies to understand its origin, its orbit… The study I present you today, Where the Solar system meets the solar neighbourhood: patterns in the distribution of radiants of observed hyperbolic minor bodies, by Carlos and Raúl de la Fuente Marcos, and Sverre J. Aarseth, is a theoretical one, but with a broader scope. This study examines the orbits of 339 objects on hyperbolic orbits, to try to determine their origin, in particular which of them might be true interstellar interlopers. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

‘Oumuamua

I detail the discovery of ‘Oumuamua there. Since that post, we know that ‘Oumuamua is a red dark object, probably dense. It is tumbling, i.e. does not rotate around a single rotation axis, in about 8 hours. The uncertainties on the rotation period are pretty important, because of this tumbling motion. Something really unexpected is huge variations of brightness, which should reveal either a cigar-shaped object, or an object with extreme variations of albedo, i.e. bright regions alternating with dark ones… but that would be inconsistent with the spectroscopy, revealing a reddish object. This is why the dimensions of ‘Oumuamua are estimated to be 230 × 35 × 35 meters.

Artist's impression of 'Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser
Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua. © ESO/M. Kornmesser

One wonders where ‘Oumuamua comes from. An extrapolation of its orbit shows that it comes from the current direction of the star Vega, in constellation Lyra… but when it was there, the star was not there, since it moved… We cannot actually determine around which star, and when, ‘Oumuamua has been formed.

Anyway, it was a breakthrough discovery, as the first certain interstellar object, with an eccentricity of 1.2. But other bodies have eccentricities larger than 1, which make them unstable in the Solar System, i.e. gravitationally unbound to the Sun… Could some of them be interstellar interlopers? This is the question addressed by the study. If you want to understand what I mean by eccentricity, hyperbolic orbit… just read the next section.

Hyperbolic orbits

The simplest orbit you can find is a circular one: the Sun is at the center, and the planetary object moves on a circle around the Sun. In such a case, the eccentricity of the orbit is 0. Now, if you get a little more eccentric, the trajectory becomes elliptical, and you will have periodic variations of the distance between the Sun and the object. And the Sun will not be at the center of the trajectory anymore, but at a focus. The eccentricity of the Earth is 0.017, which induces a closest distance of 147 millions km, and a largest one of 152 millions km… these variations are pretty limited. However, Halley’s comet has an eccentricity of 0.97. And if you exceed 1, then the trajectory will not be an ellipse anymore, but a branch of hyperbola. In such a case, the object can just make a fly-by of the Sun, before going back to the interstellar space.

Wait, it is a little more complicated than that. In the last paragraph, I assumed that the eccentricity, and more generally the orbital elements, were constant. This is true if you have only the Sun and your object (2-body, or Kepler, problem). But you have the gravitational perturbations of planets, stars,… and the consequence is that these orbital elements vary with time. You so may have a hyperbolic orbit becoming elliptical, in which case an interstellar interloper gets trapped, or conversely a Solar System object might be ejected, its eccentricity getting larger than 1.

The authors listed three known mechanisms, likely to eject a Solar System object:

  1. Close encounter with a planet,
  2. Secular interaction with the Galactic disk (in other words, long term effects due to the cumulative interactions with the stars constituting our Milky Way),
  3. Close encounter with a star.

339 hyperbolic objects

The authors identified 339 objects, which had an eccentricity larger than 1 on 2018 January 18. The objects were identified thanks to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Small-Body Database, and the Minor Planet Center database. The former is due to NASA, and the latter to the International Astronomical Union.

Once the authors got their inputs, they numerically integrated their orbits backward, over 100 kyr. These integrations were made thanks to a dedicated N-body code, powerful and optimized for long-term integration. Such algorithm is far from trivial. It consists in numerically integrating the equations of the motion of all of these 339 objects, perturbed by the Sun, the eight planets, the system Pluto-Charon, and the largest asteroids, in paying attention to the numerical errors at each iteration. This step is critical, to guarantee the validity of the results.

Some perturbed by another star

And here is the result: the authors have found that some of these objects had an elliptical orbit 100 kyr ago, meaning that they probably formed around the Sun, and are on the way to be expelled. The authors also computed the radiants of the hyperbolic objects, i.e. the direction from where they came, and they found an anisotropic distribution, i.e. there are preferred directions. Such a result has been obtained in comparing the resulting radiants from the ones given by a random process, and the distance between these 2 results is estimated to be statistically significant enough to conclude an anisotropic distribution. So, this result in not based on a pattern detected by the human eye, but on statistical calculations.

In particular, the authors noted an excess of radiants in the direction of the binary star WISE J072003.20-084651.2, also known as Scholz’s star, which is currently considered as the star having had the last closest approach to our Solar System, some 70 kilo years ago. In other words, the objects having a radiant in that direction are probably Solar System objects, and more precisely Oort cloud objects, which are being expelled because of the gravitational kick given by that star.

8 candidate interlopers

So, there is a preferred direction for the radiants, but ‘Oumuamua, which is so eccentric that it is the certain interstellar object, is an outlier in this radiant distribution, i.e. its radiant is not in the direction of Scholz’s star, and so cannot be associated with this process. Moreover, its asymptotical velocity, i.e. when far enough from the Sun, is too large to be bound to the Sun. And this happens for 8 other objects, which the authors identify as candidate interstellar interlopers. These 8 objects are

  • C/1853 RA (Brunhs),
  • C/1997 P2 (Spacewatch),
  • C/1999 U2 (SOHO),
  • C/2002 A3 (LINEAR),
  • C/2008 J4 (McNaught),
  • C/2012 C2 (Bruenjes),
  • C/2012 S1 (ISON),
  • C/2017 D3 (ATLAS).

Do we know just one, or 9 interstellar objects? Or between 1 and 9? Or more than 9? This is actually an important question, because that would constrain the number of detections to be expected in the future, and have implications for planetary formation in our Galaxy. And if these objects are interstellar ones, then we should try to investigate their physical properties (pretty difficult since they are very small and escaping, but we did it for ‘Oumuamua… maybe too late for the 8 other guys).

Anyway, more will be known in the years to come. More visitors from other systems will probably be discovered, and we will also know more on the motion of the stars passing by, thanks to the astrometric satellite Gaia. Stay tuned!

The study and its authors

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