Tag Archives: resonances

Origin of the ecliptic comets

Hi there! Today we discuss the ecliptic comets. You know the comets, these dirty snowballs which show two tails when they approach the Earth (in fact, they have a tail because they approach the Sun). The study I present today, The contribution of dwarf planets to the origin of low-inclination comets by the replenishment of mean motion resonances in debris disks, by M.A. Muñoz-Gutiérrez, A. Peimbert & B. Pichardo, tells us on the dynamical origin of those of these bodies, which have a low inclination with respect to the orbit of the Earth (the ecliptic). Simulations of their own of the primordial debris disk beyond Neptune show that the presence of dwarf planets, like Eris or Haumea, supplies future ecliptic comets. This study has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The dynamics of comets

As I said, comets are dirty snowballs. They are composed of a nucleus, made of ice and silicates. When the comet approaches the Sun, it becomes hot enough to sublimate the ice. This results in two visible tails: a dusty one, and a tail of ionized particles. Beside this, there is a envelope of hydrogen, and sometimes an antitail, which direction is opposite to the dusty tail.

The comets usually have a highly eccentric orbit. As a consequence, there are huge variations of the distance with the Sun, and this is why their activity is episodic. Their temperature increases with the closeness to the Sun, triggering outgassing.

In fact, a moderately eccentric body may be considered to be a comet, if activity is detected. This is for instance the case of the Centaur Chiron. Chiron was detected as an asteroid, and later, observations permitted to detect a cometary activity, even if it does not approach the Sun that much. But of course, this does not make the kind of beautiful comets that the amateur astronomers love to observe.

Regarding the “classical” comets: they have a high eccentricity. What does raise it? The study addresses this question. But before that, let us talk about the ecliptic comets.

The ecliptic comets

The ecliptic comets are comets with a low inclination with respect to the orbital plane of the Earth. In fact, the detections of comets have shown that they may have any inclination. The ecliptic comets are an interesting case, since they are the likeliest to approach the Earth (don’t worry, I don’t mean collision… just opportunities to observe beautiful tails 😉 ).

These low inclinations could suggest that they do not originate from the Oort cloud, but from a closer belt, i.e. the Kuiper Belt. You know, this belt of small bodies which orbits beyond the orbit of Neptune. The reason is that part of this belt has a low inclination.

It also appears that beyond the orbit of Neptune, you have dwarf planets, i.e. pretty massive objects, which are part of the Trans-Neptunian Objects. The authors emphasize their role in the dynamics of low-inclination comets.

Dwarf planets beyond Neptune

A dwarf planet is a planetary object, which does not orbit another planet (unlike our Moon), and which is large enough, to have a hydrostatic shape, i.e. it is pretty spherical. But, this is not one of the planets of the Solar System… you see it is partly defined by what it is not…

5 Solar System objects are officially classified as dwarf planets. 3 of them are in the Kuiper Belt (Pluto, Haumea and Makemake), while the other two are the Main-Belt asteroid Ceres, and Eris, which is a Trans-Neptunian Object, but belongs to the scattered disc. In other words, it orbits further than the Kuiper Belt. The following table presents some characteristics of the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt. I have added 4 bodies, which may one day be classified as dwarf planets. Astronomers have advised the IAU (International Astronomical Union) to do so.

Semi-major axis Eccentricity Inclination Orbital period Diameter
Pluto 39.48 AU 0.249 17.14° 248.09 yr 2,380 km
Haumea 43.13 AU 0.195 28.22° 283.28 yr ≈1,500 km
Makemake 45.79 AU 0.159 28.96° 309.9 yr 1,430 km
Orcus 39.17 AU 0.227 20.57° 245.18 yr 917 km
2002 MS4 41.93 AU 0.141 17.69° 271.53 yr 934 km
Salacia 42.19 AU 0.103 23.94° 274.03 yr 854 km
Quaoar 43.41 AU 0.039 8.00° 285.97 yr 1,110 km

Anyway, the dynamical influence of a planetary object does not depend on whether it is classified or not.

These are objects, which have a significant mass, orbiting in the Kuiper Belt. And they are involved in the study.

The Solar System originates from a disc

The early Solar System was probably made of a disk of small bodies, which formed after the gravitational collapse of a huge molecular cloud. Then the Sun accreted, planets accreted, which destabilized most of the remaining small bodies. Some of them where just ejected, some bombarded the Sun and the planets, some other accreted…

Here the authors work with the Kuiper Belt as a disc. So, they assume the 8 major planets to be formed. Moreover, they already have dwarf planets in the disc. And the small bodies, which are likely to become comets, are under the gravitational influence of all this population of larger bodies.

For them to become comets, their eccentricities have to be raised. And an efficient mechanism for that is resonant excitation.

Eccentricity excitation by Mean-Motion Resonances (MMR)

A mean-motion resonance (MMR) between two bodies happens when their orbital periods are commensurate. In the present case, the authors considered the 2:3 and 1:2 MMR with Neptune. The 2:3 resonance goes like this: when Neptune makes 3 orbital revolutions around the Sun, the small object makes exactly 2. And when an object makes one revolution while Neptune makes 2, then this object is at the 1:2 MMR. These two resonances are in the Kuiper Belt disc considered by the authors.

Such period ratios imply that the small bodies orbit much further than Neptune. Neptune orbits at 30.1 AU (astronomical units) of the Sun, so the 2:3 MMR is at 39.4 AU (where is Pluto), and the 2:1 MMR is at 47.7 AU.

When a small body is trapped into a MMR with a very massive one, the gravitational perturbation accumulates because of the resonant configuration. And this interaction is the strongest when the two bodies are the closest, i.e. when the small body reaches its perihelion… which periodically meets the perihelion of the massive perturber, since it s resonant. So, the accumulation of the perturbation distorts the orbit, raises its eccentricity… and you have a comet!

But the issue is: in raising the eccentricities, you empty the resonance… So, either you replenish it, or one day you have no comet anymore… Fortunately, the authors found a way to replenish it.

Numerical simulations

The authors ran different intensive numerical simulations of multiple disc particles, which are perturbed by Neptune and dwarf planets. These dwarf planets are randomly located. They challenged different disc masses, the masses of the dwarf planets being proportional to the total mass of the disc.

And now, the results!

Replenishment of the 2:1 Mean-Motion Resonance (MMR)

The authors found nothing interesting for the 3:2 MMR. However, they found that the presence of the dwarf planets replenishes the 2:1 MMR. So here is the process:

  1. When a particle (a km-size body) is trapped into the 2:1 MMR, its eccentricity is raised
  2. It becomes a comet and may be destabilized. It could also become a Jupiter-family comet, i.e. a comet which period is close to the one of Jupiter. This happens after a close encounter with Jupiter.
  3. Other particles arrive in the resonances, and become comets themselves.

One tenth of the ecliptic comets

The authors also estimated the cometary flux, which this process should create. The authors estimate that it can give up to 8 Jupiter-family comets in 10,000 years, while the observations suggest a ten times larger number.
So, this is a mechanism, but probably not the only one.

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.

On the orbital evolution of Saturn’s mid-sized moons

Hi there! On the moons of Saturn today. Of course, you have heard of the Cassini mission, which toured around Saturn during 12 years. Its journey ended one year ago, after the Grand Finale, during which it was destroyed in the atmosphere of Saturn. It provided us during these 12 years a colossal amount of data, which is a chance for science. It is a chance, since it improves our knowledge of the system.

But this also gives birth to new challenges. Indeed, all of these new observations are constraints, with which the models must comply. They must explain why the satellites are where they are, AND why they present the surface features they present, AND why they have their measured gravity field, AND why they have their current shape, AND why the rings are like this, AND why Saturn is like that… You see the challenge. This is why it sparks so many studies.

Today we discuss about Orbital evolution of Saturn’s mid-sized moons and the tidal heating of Enceladus, by Ayano Nakajima, Shigeru Ida, Jun Kimura, and Ramon Brasser. This Japanese team performed numerical simulations to try to understand how the orbits of Enceladus, Tethys and Dione, evolved, with being consistent with their possible heating. The evolution is driven by the dissipation in Saturn, in the satellites, and the pull of the rings. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The mid-sized moons of Saturn

When we speak about the mid-sized satellites of Saturn, usually we mean Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and sometimes Rhea.
The inner moons orbit inner to the orbit of Mimas, and are embedded into the rings. However, Titan, Hyperion, Iapetus and Phoebe are just too far. Besides these, there are small moons which are embedded into the mid-sized system of Saturn.

Let us go back to the mid-sized. You can find below some of their characteristics.

Semi-major axis Eccentricity Inclination Orbital period Diameter
Mimas 3.19 R 0.02 1.57° 0.92 d 396 km
Enceladus 4.09 R 0.005 0.02° 1.37 d 504 km
Tethys 5.06 R ≈0 1.12° 1.89 d 1,062 km
Dione 6.48 R 0.002 0.02° 2.74 d 1,123 km
Rhea 9.05 R 0.001 0.35° 4.52 d 1,528 km

The unit “R” in the semimajor axis column is Saturn’s radius, i.e. 58,232 km. You can see that the size of the satellites increases with the distance. This has motivated the elaboration of a scenario of formation of the satellites from the rings, by Sébastien Charnoz et al. In this scenario, the rings would be initially much more massive than they are now, and the satellites would have emerged from them as droplets, removing their mass from the rings. Then they would have migrated outward. In such a scenario, the further satellites would be the older ones, and the massive ones as well. Regarding the mass, this is just true.

Craters, ridges, and internal oceans

This is what Cassini told us:

  • Mimas is known for its large crater Herschel, which diameter (139 km) is almost one-third the diameter of Mimas. It makes it look alike Star Wars’ Death Star. Its widely craterized surface suggests an inactive body. However, measurements of its east-west librations are almost inconsistent with a rigid body. It would contain an internal ocean, but explaining why this ocean is not frozen is a challenge.
  • Mimas seen by Cassini. © NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
    Mimas seen by Cassini. © NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute
  • Enceladus may be the most interesting of these bodies, because its surface presents geysers, and tiger stripes, which are tectonic fractures and ridges. This proves Enceladus to be a differentiated and hot, active body. It dissipates energy, and we need to explain why.
  • The tiger stripes at the South Pole of Enceladus. © NASA
    The tiger stripes at the South Pole of Enceladus. © NASA
  • Tethys is quieter. It presents many craters, the largest one being Odysseus. Besides, it has a large valley, Ithaca Chasma. It is up to 100 km wide, 3 to 5 km deep and 2,000 km long. Its presence reveals a hot past.
  • Ithaca Chasma on Tethys © Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
    Ithaca Chasma on Tethys © Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
  • Like Tethys, Dione and Rhea present craters and evidences of past activity.

Interesting features, hot past

Enceladus, Tethys, Dione and Rhea present evidences of activity. Enceladus and Dione have global, internal oceans, while the other two may have one. Mimas presents a very quiet surface, but may have an ocean as well. All this means that these 5 moons are, or have been excited, i.e. shaken, to partly melt, crack the surface, and dissipate energy.

The primordial heat source is the decay of radiogenic elements, but this works only during the early ages of the body. After that, the dissipation is dominated by the tides raised by Saturn. Because of the variations of the distance between Saturn and the satellite, the gravitational torque changes. Its variations generate stress and strain, which are likely to dramatically affect the internal structure of the satellite. Variations of distance are due to orbital eccentricity. As you can see, some of the satellites have a significant one, with the exception of Tethys. And the eccentricity may be excited by mean-motion resonances.

Resonances everywhere

Let us go back to the orbital properties of the satellites. You can see that the orbital period of Tethys is twice the one of Mimas. Same for Enceladus and Dione. This did not happen by chance. These are mean-motion resonances. The 2:1 Enceladus-Dione one excites the eccentricity of Enceladus, and so is responsible for its currently observed activity. However, the Mimas-Tethys resonance, which is a 4:2 one (the reason why it is 4:2 and not 2:1 is pretty technical, see here), excites the inclination of Mimas, and slightly the one of Tethys as well.

As I said, this configuration did not happen by chance. The satellites have migrated since their formation, and once they encountered a resonant configuration, they actually encountered a stable location. And sometimes stable enough to stay there.

Long-term migration of the satellites

Two processes have been identified for being responsible of the long-term migration: the tides and the pull of the rings.

The tides are the result of the interaction with Saturn, the satellites being finite-size bodies. As a consequence of their size, the different parts of the satellite undergo a different torque from Saturn, and this generates stress and strain, i.e. dissipation of energy. But the satellite exerts a torque on Saturn as well. The consequence is a competition between the two processes, resulting in a variation of the orbital energy of the satellite. If the satellite gains energy, then it moves outward. However, if it dissipates energy, it moves inward. The tides also tend to circularize the orbits, i.e. damp the eccentricities.

Beside this, the rings exert a pull on the satellites. The main effect is on Mimas, because of its distance to the rings, its limited size, and the fact that it has a resonance with the rings. It has a 2:1 mean-motion resonance with the inner edge of the well-known Cassini Division, i.e. a 4,500-km wide depletion of material in the rings. At the inner edge of the Division, which is actually the outer edge of the B ring, you have an accumulation of material. This accumulation tends to push Mimas outward.

Coping with the observational constraints

The spacecraft Cassini gave us numbers. In particular

  • We have an estimation of the tidal response of Saturn,
  • we know the masses of the rings and of the satellites,
  • we can estimate the current dissipation, in particular for Enceladus,
  • we know the main geological features, in particular the impacts and the ridges, to estimate the energies which has created them.

If you want to explain something, you should better try to not violate any of these observations. A very tough task.

4 sets of numerical simulations

To elaborate an acceptable scenario for the orbital evolution of the mid-sized system, the authors ran 4 sets of intensive numerical simulations:

  1. SET 1a: Enceladus older than Tethys. This is suggested by the backward extrapolation of the orbits of Enceladus and Tethys, without mutual interaction, but migrating because of a highly dissipative Saturn… which can be allowed by the data. The consequence of such a scenario is that Tethys is originally closer to Saturn than Enceladus, and must cross its orbit to be further.
  2. SET 1b: Enceladus and Tethys starting with the same semimajor axis. Actually an end-member of the previous case.
  3. SET 2a: Tethys is older than Enceladus, and the rings affect only the semimajor axes.
  4. SET 2b: Almost the same as SET 2a, with the exception that the rings also affect the eccentricities of the satellites.

And now, the results.

Tethys is older than Enceladus

The hypothesis that Enceladus is older than Tethys should probably be discarded. Indeed, the simulations end up in collisions between the two bodies, which is inconsistent with the fact that we can actually see them.

So, this means that Tethys is older than Enceladus. However, the simulations of the sets 2a/b are not entirely satisfying, since the satellites end up in resonances, in which they are not now, which constitutes a violation of the observational data. This is particularly true if you include Dione in the simulations.

These resonances should have been encountered before the current ones. In other words, either the satellites were not trapped, but the simulations show they were, or they escaped these resonances after trapping. Some studies suggest that a catastrophic event could do that. A catastrophic event is an impact, and the surfaces of these bodies show that they underwent intense bombardments. Why not?

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.

Dust coorbital to Jupiter

Hi there! You may have heard of the coorbital satellites of Jupiter, or the Trojans, which share its orbit. Actually they are 60° ahead or behind it, which are equilibrium positions. Today we will see that dust is not that attached to these equilibrium. This is the opportunity to present you a study divided into two papers, Dust arcs in the region of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and Comparison of the orbital properties of Jupiter Trojan asteroids and Trojan dust, by Xiaodong Liu and Jürgen Schmidt. These two papers have recently been accepted for publication in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The Trojan asteroids

Jupiter is the largest of the planets of the Solar System, it orbits the Sun in 11.86 years. On pretty the same orbit, asteroids precede and follow Jupiter, with a longitude difference of 60°. These are stable equilibrium, in which Jupiter and every asteroid are locked in a 1:1 mean-motion resonance. This means that they have the same orbital period. These two points, which are ahead and behind Jupiter on its orbit, are the Lagrange points L4 and L5. Why 4 and 5? Because three other equilibrium exist, of course. These other Lagrange points, i.e. L1, L2, and L3, are aligned with the Sun and Jupiter, and are unstable equilibrium. It is anyway possible to have orbits around them, and this is sometimes used in astrodynamics for positioning artificial satellites of the Earth, but this is beyond the scope of our study.

Location of the Lagrange points.
Location of the Lagrange points.

At present, 7,206 Trojan asteroids are list by the JPL Small Body Database, about two thirds orbiting in the L4 region. Surprisingly, no coorbital asteroid is known for Saturn, a few for Uranus, 18 for Neptune, and 8 for Mars. Some of these bodies are on unstable orbits.

Understanding the formation of these bodies is challenging, in particular explaining why Saturn has no coorbital asteroid. However, once an asteroid orbits at such a place, its motion is pretty well understood. But what about dust? This is what the authors investigated.

Production of dust

When a planetary body is hit, it produces ejecta, which size and dynamics depend on the impact, the target, and the impactor. The Solar System is the place for an intense micrometeorite bombardment, from which our atmosphere protects us. Anyway, all of the planetary bodies are impacted by micrometeorites, and the resulting ejecta are micrometeorites themselves. Their typical sizes are between 2 and 50 micrometers, this is why we can call them dust. More specifically, it is zodiacal dust, and we can sometimes see it from the Earth, as it reflects light. We call this light zodiacal light, and it can be confused with light pollution.

It is difficult to estimate the production of dust. The intensity of the micrometeorite bombardment can be estimated by spacecraft. For instance, the spacecraft Cassini around Saturn had on-board the instrument CDA, for Cosmic Dust Analyzer. This instrument not only measured the intensity of this bombardment around Saturn, but also the chemical composition of the micrometeorites.

Imagine you have the intensity of the bombardment (and we don’t have it in the L4 and L5 zones of Jupiter). This does not mean that you have the quantity of ejecta. This depends on a yield parameter, which has been studied in labs, and remains barely constrained. It should depend on the properties of the material and the impact velocity.

The small size of these particles make them sensitive to forces, which do not significantly affect the planetary bodies.

Non-gravitational forces affect the dust

Classical planetary bodies are affected (almost) only by gravitation. Their motion is due to the gravitational action of the Sun, this is why they orbit around it. On top of that, they are perturbed by the planets of the Solar System. The stability of the Lagrange points results of a balance between the gravitational actions of the Sun and of Jupiter.

This is not enough for dusty particles. They are also affected by

  • the Solar radiation pressure,
  • the Poynting-Robertson drag,
  • the Solar wind drag,
  • the magnetic Lorentz force.

The Solar radiation pressure is an exchange of momentum between our particle and the electromagnetic field of the Sun. It depends on the surface over mass ratio of the particle. The Poynting-Robertson drag is a loss of angular momentum due to the tangential radiation pressure. The Solar wind is a stream of charged particles released from the Sun’s corona, and the Lorentz force is the response to the interplanetary magnetic field.

You can see that some of these effects result in a loss of angular momentum, which means that the orbit of the particle would tend to spiral. Tend to does not mean that it will, maybe the gravitational action of Jupiter, in particular at the coorbital resonance, would compensate this effect… You need to simulate the motion of the particles to know the answer.

Numerical simulations

And this is what the authors did. They launched bunches of numerical simulations of dusty particles, initially located in the L4 region. They simulated the motion of 1,000 particles, which sizes ranged from 0.5 to 32 μm, over more than 15 kyr. And at the end of the simulations, they represented the statistics of the resulting orbital elements.

Some stay, some don’t…

This way, the authors have showed that, for each size of particles, the resulting distribution is bimodal. In other words: the initial cloud has a maximum of members close to the exact semimajor axis of Jupiter. And at the end of the simulation, the distribution has two peaks: one centered on the semimajor axis of Jupiter, and another one slightly smaller, which is a consequence of the non-gravitational forces. This shift depends on the size of the particles. As a consequence, you see this bimodal distribution for every cloud of particles of the same size, but it is visually replaced by a flat if you consider the final distribution of the whole cloud. Just because the location of the second peak depends on the size of the particles.

Moreover, dusty particles have a pericenter which is slightly closer to the one of Jupiter than the asteroids, this effect being once more sensitive to the size of the particles. However, the inclinations are barely affected by the size of the particles.

In addition to those particles, which remain in the coorbital resonance, some escape. Some eventually fall on Jupiter, some are trapped in higher-order resonances, and some even become coorbital to Saturn!

As a conclusion we could say that the cloud of Trojan asteroids is different from the cloud of Trojan dust.

All this results from numerical simulations. It would be interesting to compare with observations…

Lucy is coming

But there are no observations of dust at the Lagrange points… yet. NASA will launch the spacecraft Lucy in October 2021, which will explore Trojan asteroids at the L4 and L5 points. It will also help us to constrain the micrometeorite bombardment in these regions.

The study and its authors

You can find below the two studies:

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.

Forming Pluto’s satellites

Hi there! A team from the University of Hong Kong has recently explored a scenario of formation of the small satellites of Pluto. You know, there are 4 small bodies, named Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra, which orbit around the binary Trans-Neptunian Object Pluto-Charon. At this time, we don’t know yet how they were formed, and how they ended up at their present locations, despite the data that the spacecraft New Horizons sent us recently. The study I present you today, On the early in situ formation of Pluto’s small satellites, by Jason Man Yin Woo and Man Hoi Lee, simulates the early evolution of the Pluto-Charon system. It has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The satellites of Pluto

The American Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. He examined photographic plates taken at Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona, USA, and detected a moving object, which thus could not be a star. The International Astronomical Union considered Pluto to be the ninth planet of the Solar System, until 2006. At that time, numerous discoveries of distant objects motivated the creation of the class of dwarf planets, Pluto being one of the largest of them.

The other American astronomer James W. Christy discovered a companion to Pluto, Charon, in June 1978. Still at Flagstaff.

The existence of far objects in our Solar System motivated the launch of the space missions New Horizons in 2006. New Horizons made a close approach of the system of Pluto in July 2015, and is currently en route to the Trans-Neptunian Object 2014MU69. The closest approach is scheduled for January, 1st 2019.

In parallel to the preparation of New Horizons, the scientific team performed observations of Pluto-Charon with the famous Hubble Space Telescope. And they discovered 4 small satellites: Nix, Hydra, Styx and Kerberos. You can find some of their characteristics below, which are due to New Horizons.

Charon Styx Nix Kerberos Hydra
Discovery 1978 2012 2005 2011 2005
Semimajor axis 17,181 km 42,656 km 48,694 km 57,783 km 64,738 km
Eccentricity 0 0.006 0 0.003 0.006
Inclination 0.8° 0.1° 0.4° 0.2°
Orbital period 6.39 d 20.16 d 24.85 d 32.17 d 38.20 d
Spin period 6.39 d 3.24 d 1.829 d 5.31 d 0.43 d
Mean diameter 1,214 km 10.5 km 39 km 12 km 42 km
Styx seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Styx seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Nix seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Nix seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Kerberos seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Kerberos seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

Hydra seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute
Hydra seen by New Horizons © NASA / Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute

We should compare these numbers to the ones of Pluto: a mean diameter of 2370 km, and a spin period of 6.39 d. This implies that:

  • Pluto and Charon are two large objects, with respect to the other satellites. So, Pluto-Charon should be seen as a binary TNO, and the other four objects are satellites of the binary.
  • Pluto and Charon are in a state of double synchronous spin-orbite resonance: their rotation rate is the same, and is the same that their mutual orbital motion. If you are on the surface of Pluto, facing a friend of yours on the surface of Charon, you will always face her. This is probably the most stable dynamical equilibrium, reached after dissipation of energy over the ages.

And the four small satellites orbit outside the mutual orbits of Pluto and Charon.

Proximity of Mean-Motion Resonances

We can notice that:

  • the orbital period of Styx is close to three times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Nix is close to four times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Kerberos is close to five times the one of Charon,
  • the orbital period of Hydra is close to six times the one of Charon.

Close to, but not exactly. This suggests the influence of mean-motion resonances of their orbital motion, i.e. the closest distance between Charon and Styx will happen every 3 orbits of Charon at the same place, so you can have a cumulative effect on the orbit. And the same thing would happen for the other objects. But this is actually not that clear whether that cumulative effect would be significant or not, and if yes, how it would affect the orbits. Previous studies suggest that it translates into a tiny zone of stability for Kerberos, provided that Nix and Hydra are not too massive.

Anyway, the authors wondered why these four satellites are currently at their present location.

Testing a scenario of formation

They addressed this question in testing the following scenario: Charon initially impacted Pluto, and the debris resulting from the impact created the four small satellites. To test this scenario, they ran long-term numerical simulations of small, test particles, perturbed by Pluto and Charon. Pluto and Charon were not in the current state, but in a presumed early one, before the establishment of the two synchronous rotations, and with and without a significant initial eccentricity for Charon. The authors simulated the orbital evolution, the system evolving over the action of gravitational mutual interactions, and tides.

The long-term evolution is ruled by tides

The tides are basically the dissipation of energy in a planetary body, due to the difference of force exerted at different points of the body. This results in stress, and is modeled as a tidal bulge, which points to the direction of the perturber. The dissipation of energy is due to the small angular shift between the orientation of the bulge and the direction of the perturber. The equilibrium configuration of Pluto-Charon, i.e. the two synchronous rotations, suggest that the binary is tidally evolved.

The authors applied tides only on Pluto and Charon, and considered two tidal models:

  1. A constant time delay between the tidal excitation and the response of the tidal bulge,
  2. A constant angular shift between the tidal bulge and the direction of the perturber.

The tidal models actually depend on the properties of the material, and the frequency of the excitation. In such a case, the frequency of the excitation depends on the two rotation rates of Pluto and Charon, and on their orbital motions. The properties of the material, in particular the rigidity and the viscosity, are ruled by the temperatures of the objects, which are not necessarily constant in space and in time, since tidal stress tend to heat the object. Here the authors did not consider a time variation of the tidal parameters.

Other models, which are probably more physically realistic but more complex, exist in the literature. Let me cite the Maxwell model, which assumes two regimes for the response of the planetary body: elastic for slow excitations, i.e. not dissipative, and dissipative for fast excitations. The limit between fast and slow is indicated by the Maxwell time, which depends on the viscosity and the rigidity of the object.

Anyway, the authors ran different numerical simulations, with the two tidal models (constant angular shift and constant time delay), with different numbers and different initial eccentricities for Charon. And in all of these simulations, they monitored the fate of independent test particles orbiting in the area.

Possible scenario, but…

The authors seem disappointed by their results. Actually, some of the particles are affected by mean-motion resonances, some other are ejected, but the simulations show that particles may end up at the current locations of Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra. However, their current locations, i.e. close to mean-motion resonances, do not appear to be preferred places for formation. This means that we still do not know why the satellites are where they currently are, and not somewhere else.

What’s next?

The next target of New Horizons is 2014MU69, which we will be the first object explored by a spacecraft, which had been launched before the object was known to us. We should expect many data.

The study and its authors

You can find here

  • The study, made freely available by the authors on arXiv, thanks to them for sharing!
  • and the homepage of Man Hoi Lee.

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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.