Tag Archives: Occultations

Spatial variations of Enceladus’ plumes

Hi there! I guess most of you have heard of Enceladus. This mid-sized icy satellite of Saturn arouses the interest of planetologists, because of its geological activity. Permanent eruptions of plumes, essentially made of water ice, have been detected at its South Pole, by the Cassini spacecraft. The study I present you today, Spatial variations in the dust-to-gas ratio of Enceladus’ plume, by M.M. Hedman, D. Dhingra, P.D. Nicholson, C.J. Hansen, G. Portyankina, S. Ye and Y. Dong, has recently been published in Icarus.

The South Pole of Enceladus

Enceladus orbits around Saturn in one day and 9 hours, at a mean distance of 238,000 km. It is the second of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn by its distance from the planet, and is in an orbital 2:1 resonance with Dione, i.e. Dione makes exactly one revolution around Saturn while Enceladus makes 2. This results in a slight forcing of its orbital eccentricity, which remains anyway modest, i.e. 0.005. Like our Moon and many satellites of the giant planets, Enceladus rotates synchronously.

Interestingly, the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers at the South Pole of Enceladus, and fractures, which were nicknamed tiger stripes. They were named after 4 Middle East cities: Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus.

The South Pole of Enceladus. We can see from left to right the famous tiger stripes, i.e. Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus sulci. © NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/DLR
The South Pole of Enceladus. We can see from left to right the famous tiger stripes, i.e. Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus sulci. © NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/DLR

These 4 fractures are 2km-large and 500m-deep depressions, which extend up to 130 km. The plumes emerge from them. Interior models suggest that the source of these geysers is a diapir of water, located at the South Pole.

Analysis of these plumes require them to be illuminated, and observed with spectroscopic devices. This is where the instruments UVIS and VIMS get involved.

The instruments UVIS & VIMS of Cassini

The study I present you today presents an analysis of VIMS data, before comparing the results of the same event given by UVIS.

UVIS and VIMS are two instruments of the Cassini mission, which completed a 13-years tour in the system of Saturn in September 2017 with its Grand Finale, crashing in the atmosphere of Saturn. It was accompanied by the lander Huygens, which landed on Titan in 2005, and had 12 instruments on board. Among them were UVIS and VIMS.

And then, you wonder, dear reader, whether I will introduce you UVIS and VIMS, since I mention them since the beginning without introducing them. Yes, this is now.

UVIS stands for Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, and VIMS for Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. Their functions are in their names: both analyze the incoming light, UVIS in the ultraviolet spectrum, and VIMS in the visible and infrared ones. And the combination of these two spectra is relevant in this study: the analysis in the ultraviolet tells you one thing (quantity of gas), while the analysis in the infrared gives the quantity of dust. When you compare them, you have the dust-to-gas ratio. Of course, this is not that straightforward. First you have to collect the data.

Analyzing a Solar occultation by the plumes

As I said, the plume needs to be illuminated. And for that, you have to position the spacecraft where the plumes occult the Sun. So, this could happen only during a fly-by of Enceladus, which means that it was impossible to have a permanent monitoring of these plumes. Moreover, from the geometry of the configuration, i.e. location of the plume, of the Sun, of the spacecraft,… you had the data at a given altitude. It is easy to figure out that the water is more volatile than dust, is ejected faster, and higher… In other words, the higher is the observation, the lower the dust-to-gas ratio.

The studied occultation happened on May 18, 2010, and lasted approximately 70 seconds, during which the illuminated plumes originated from different tiger stripes. This means that a temporal variation of the composition of plumes during the event means a spatial variation in the subsurface of the South Pole. The altitude was 20-30 km.

But detecting a composition is a tough task. Actually the UVIS data, i.e. detection of water, were published in 2011, and the VIMS ones (detection of dust) only in 2018, probably because the signal is very weak. The authors observed a Solar spectrum in the infrared, and at the exact date of the occultation, a slight flux drop occurred, which was the signature of a dusty plume. For it to be exploitable, the authors had to treat the signal, i.e. de-noise it.

After this treatment, the resulting signal was an optical depth in 256 spectral channels between 0.85 an 5.2 microns. You then need to compare it with a theoretical model of diffraction by micrometric particles, the Mie diffraction, to have an idea of the particle-size distribution. Because the particles do not all have the same size, of course! Actually, the distribution is close to a power law of index 4.

Spatial variations detected

And here is the results: at an altitude of around 25 km, the authors have found that the material emerging from Baghdad and Damascus are up to one order of magnitude, i.e. 10 times, more particle-rich than the ones emerging from Alexandria and Cairo sulci.

It is not straightforward to draw conclusions from this single event. Once more, a permanent monitoring of the plumes was impossible. Spatial variations of the dust-to-gas ratio at a given altitude could either mean something on the variations of the dust-to-gas ratio in the subsurface diapir, and/or something on the spatial variations of the ejection velocities of dust and gas. Once more, the ratio is expected to decline with the altitude, since the water is more volatile.

We dispose of data from other events, for instance a fly-by, named E7, which occurred in November 2009, of the South Pole at an altitude of 100 km, during which the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) analyzed the plumes. The data are pretty consistent with the ones presented here, but the altitude is very different, so be careful.

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.

Measuring an asteroid from its shadow

Hi there! Today’s post is on the paper Results from the 2014 November 15th multi-chord stellar occultation by the TNO (229762) 2007 UK126, by Gustavo Benedetti-Rossi and 28 colleagues, which has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal. It explains us what 22 simultaneous observations of the same event, i.e. the occultation of a star by an asteroid, tell us about this asteroid.

The asteroid (229762) 2007 UK126

(229762) 2007 UK126 is a Trans-Neptunian Object, which was discovered in October 2007. Its highly eccentricity orbit (0.49) makes it a probable scattered disc object, i.e. its eccentricity should have been pumped by the planets, in particular Neptune. Its estimated rotation period is 11.05 hours. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed the presence of an orbital companion.

Even at its perihelion, this object is further than Neptune, which makes it difficult to observe. The stellar occultations permit to bypass this problem.

The strategy of observation

The idea is this: while a pretty dark object passes just between you and a star, you do no see the star anymore. The dark object occults it. This occultation contains information.

This is the reason why some planetary scientists try to predict occultations from simulations of the motion of asteroids in the sky, maintaining lists of such events. These predictions suffer from uncertainties on the orbit of the asteroid, this motivates the need to refine the predictions just before the predicted event. For that, astrometric observations of the object are performed, to better constrain its orbital ephemerides.

Once the occultation is predicted with enough accuracy, the observers are informed of the date and the places from where to observe. Multiple observations of the same event, at different locations, represent a set of data which will then be inverted to get information on the asteroid. For these observations to be conducted, amateur astronomers are solicited. They usually constitute networks, which efficiency is doped by their enthusiasm.

The observation of a stellar occultation consists to measure the light flux received from the star during a time interval which includes the predicted event, and when the occultation happens, then a flux drop should be registered. For an observation to be useful, the observer should take care to have an accurate time reference. Moreover, a clear sky, preferably with no wind, makes the measurements more accurate. Some flux drops could be actually due to clouds passing by!

What can these observations tell us?

The first information we get from these occultations addresses the motion of the asteroid: the date and length of the occultation is an information, because we know where the asteroid was on the celestial sphere when this happened. When no occultation is detected, this is an information as well, even if it is frustrating.
Observing at different places permits to observe the occultation of the star by different parts of the asteroid. This is called a multi-chord occultation. From the duration of the event, we can deduce the size of the object with a much better accuracy than direct observation. Such a technique could also detect companions, as it might have been the case for the Main-Belt asteroid (146)Lucina in 1982.

A compelling information on a planetary body is its mass. The best way to measure its mass is by observing the orbit of a companion, if there is one. If there is none, or if its orbit cannot be observed, then we can combine the different measurements of its radius with the measurement of its rotation period and the assumption that its shape is at an hydrostatic equilibrium, i.e. a balance between its own gravity, its rotation, and possibly the gravitational (tidal) attraction of a planetary companion. In the absence of a companion, the equilibrium figure is an oblate, MacLaurin spheroid, which has a circular equatorial section, and a rotation axis which is smaller than the two other ones. If a companion is involved, then the object could be a Jacobi ellipsoid, i.e. an ellipsoid with 3 different principal axes.

This study

This study gathers the results of 20 observations of the stellar occultation of the star UCAC4 448-006503 by the TNO (229762) 2007 UK126 in November 2014, all over the United States, and 2 negative observations, i.e. no flux drop measured, in Mexico. One of the difficulties is is to be accurate on the exact times of the beginning (ingress) and the end (egress) of the event, i.e. the star disappearance and reappearance. This is the reason why the authors of the study split into two teams, which treated the same data separately, with their own techniques (denoted GBR and MWB, since conducted by Gustavo Benedetti-Rossi and Marc W. Buie, respectively).

And here are some of their results:

Before GBR MWB
Longest radius (km) 339+15-10 340+12-8
Equivalent radius (km) 299.5±38.9 319+14-7 319+12-6
Circular fit radius (km) 324+27-23 328+26-21
Apparent oblateness 0.106+0.050-0.040 0.118+0.055-0.048
Density (kg/m3) <1740 <1620

This table tells us that, before the occultation, only a mean radius was known, and with a much larger uncertainty than now. It also tells us that assuming the asteroid to be circular instead of elliptical gives a larger uncertainty. Wait… why circular and not spherical? Why elliptical and not ellipsoidal? Because the occultation is ruled by the projection of the shape of the asteroid on the celestial sphere, which is a 2D surface. So, we observe a surface, and not a volume, even if our assumptions on the shape (remember, the MacLaurin spheroid) give us a 3D information.
This is why the oblateness is just an apparent oblateness. It is actually biased by the projection on the celestial sphere. This oblateness is defined by the quantity (a-b)/a, where a and b are the two axes of the projected asteroid, with a > b.

To know more…

You can find the study on the web site of The Astronomical Journal. It has also been freely made available by the authors on arXiv. Thanks to the authors for sharing! Here is the webpage of the RECON and IOTA networks, which were of great help for the observations.

The authors

Here are their web pages or research profiles:

I hope you enjoyed this post. As usual, please let me know what you think about it. Happy holidays to everybody, and see you soon!