Tag Archives: rings

The activity of Chiron

Hi there! You may have heard of Chiron, which was he first Centaur discovered, in 1977. This minor planet may have rings, and seems to present some cometary activity, which cause needs to be discussed. This is the topic of the present study, i.e. Activity of (2060) Chiron possibly caused by impacts?, by Stefan Cikota, Estela Fernández-Valenzuela, Jose Luis Ortiz, Nicolás Morales, René Duffard, Jesus Aceituno, Aleksandar Cikota and Pablo Santos-Sanz. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Chiron’s facts

Chiron was the first discovered Centaur, i.e. the first asteroid / small planet, which orbits between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus. It was discovered in 1977, in the sense that it was identified in 1977. But reexamination of past photographic plates show that it has in fact been observed since 1895. And from the reanalysis of the pre-discovery observations, it was easy to determine an orbit.

Discovery 1977
First observation 1895
Apparent magnitude 19
Absolute magnitude 6
Diameter 220 km
Semimajor axis 13.648 AU
Eccentricity 0.3823
Inclination 6.9497°
Orbital period 50.42 yr
Rotation 5.918 h

The orbital period of Chiron is a slightly longer than 50 years, which means that we dispose of astrometric observations over more than 2 periods. This orbit is highly eccentric, which results in large variations of the distance to the Sun, i.e. between 8.43 AU (astronomical units) at perihelion, and 18.86 AU at aphelion.

A spectral analysis of Chiron reveals a C-type, i.e. a carbonaceous, object. Moreover, it shows large variations of brightness, which are considered to be partly due to cometary activity, and partly due to rings. This cometary activity makes that Chiron, officially the asteroid (2060)Chiron, can also be called the comet 95P/Chiron.

Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura
Chiron observed at Kuma Kogen Astronomical Observatory, Japan. © 1997 by Akimasa Nakamura

The presence of rings around Chiron is not unanimously accepted in the scientific community. Unexpected stellar occultations by something orbiting close to Chiron could be interpreted either as cometary jets, or as rings. But the large variations of brightness and the discoveries of rings around Chariklo and Haumea speak for the presence of rings. The discovery of rings around Chariklo was very surprising, and showed that it is possible. The discovery around Haumea has shown that rings around such bodies were not exceptional. So, why not Chiron? In this study, the authors clearly state that they believe in the presence of rings, and they use it to study the brightness of Chiron. These rings would have a radius of 324 ± 10 km, which is inside the estimated Roche limit of Chiron, i.e. the particles constituting the rings could not accrete into a larger body.

But the central point is the cometary activity, i.e. evidence for cometary jets is reported.

Triggering a cometary activity

Classical comets behave this way: these are dirty snowballs, i.e. made of ice, dust, and some other elements. When approaching the Sun, the comet gets so warm that the ice is sublimated. But a Centaur with cometary activity is different, since it does not get closer to the Sun. Moreover, Chiron is essentially carbonaceous. So, another cause has to be found. And in such a case, it is often tempting to invoke impacts.

A problem is that impacts are not that frequent in that region of the Solar System. First because the gravitational action of the Sun tends to focus the orbits of the potential impactors, i.e. they will be more inclined to get closer to the Sun, and second because, the more distant from the Sun you are, the emptier the space appears, this is just a geometrical effect.
The consequences of these effects is that a collision of a 1km-radius comet is expected on a body like Chiron every 60 Gyr… while the age of the Solar System is 4.5 Gyr… quite unlikely.

Photometric observations

Anyway, Chiron is known to have some cometary activity, and the author tracked it from Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA) in Almeria, Spain, during 3 observation campaigns, between 2014 and 2016. The first campaign was primarily devoted to the study of the rotation of Chiron, and consisted of 3 runs in 2014, using the 3.5 and the 1.23 m telescopes. The second campaign was conducted in September 2015 on the 2.2 m telescope, with the CAFOS instrument (Calar Alto Faint Object Spectrograph), and looked for rotation, absolute magnitude, and cometary activity. The third campaign took place on 2016, September 2, to get a better constraint on Chiron’s absolute magnitude, once again with CAFOS.

The authors were particularly interested in the photometry, since cometary jets translate into variations of brightness. For that, they had to correct the variations due to observational constraints, and to the orientation of Chiron.

The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal
The 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (CAHA). © Alfredo Madrigal

Observational constraints are likely to give artificial variations of photometry, since

  • the height of Chiron on the horizon varies, which means that the thickness of the atmosphere varies,
  • the wind might result in unstable images (seeing),
  • the detectors are different, even on the same instrument,etc.

To try to make things as proper as possible, the authors corrected the images from flat fielding, i.e. from the variations of the response of the CCD chip, and they observed a large enough field (at least 16 arcmin), to have the same stars as photometric references.

Regarding the orientation of Chiron, variations of brightness can reveal:

  • the rotation of Chiron, which would present different surface elements to the observer,
  • the orientation of the rings.

These two effects were modeled, to be removed from the photometric measurements. And the result is…

Impacts from the rings

The authors do observe a small cometary activity on Chiron, which is pretty faint. It has actually been stronger in the past, a measurement in 1973 showed a peak with respect to another measurement in 1970, and since then the coma is monotonously decreasing. The authors interpret that as a possible small impact having occurred between 1970 and 1973, the associated coma tail having almost disappeared. This activity appears to be supplemented by a continuous micro-activity, which could be due to impacts by small particles falling from the rings.

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.

A constantly renewed ring of Saturn

Hi there! The outstanding Cassini mission ended last September with its Grand Finale, and it gave us invaluable data, which will still be studied for many years. Today I present you a study which has recently been published in The Astrophysical Journal: Particles co-orbital to Janus and Epimetheus: A firefly planetary ring, by a Brazilian team composed of Othon C. Winter, Alexandre P.S. Souza, Rafael Sfair, Silvia M. Giuliatti Winter, Daniela C. Mourão, and Dietmar W. Foryta. This study tells us how the authors characterized a dusty ring in the system of Saturn, studied its stability, and investigated its origin.

The rings of Saturn

As you may know, Saturn is the ringed planet, its rings being visible from Earth-based amateur telescopes. Actually, the 4 major planets of our Solar System have rings, and some dwarf planets as well, i.e. Chariklo, Haumea, and possibly Chiron. But Saturn is the only one with so dense rings. I summarize below the main relevant structures and distances, from the center of Saturn:

Distance Structure
60,268 km The atmospheric pressure of Saturn reaches 1 bar.
This is considered as the equatorial radius of Saturn.
66,900 – 74,510 km D Ring
74,658 – 92,000 km C Ring
92,000 – 117,580 km B Ring
117,580 – 122,170 km Cassini Division
122,170 – 136,775 km A Ring
133,589 km Encke Gap
140,180 km F Ring
151,500 km Orbits of Janus and Epimetheus
189,000 km Orbit of Mimas
1,222,000 km Orbit of Titan

The A and B Rings are the densest ones. They are separated by the Cassini Division, which appears as a lack of material. It actually contains some, arranged as ringlets, but they are very faint. The Encke Gap is a depletion of material as well, in which the small satellite Pan confines the boundaries. Here we are interested in a dusty ring enshrouding the orbits of Janus and Epimetheus, i.e. outside the dense rings. The discovery of this ring had been announced in 2006, this study reveals its characteristics.

The rings of Saturn seen by Cassini. From right to left: the A Ring with the Encke Gap, the Cassini Division, the B Ring, the C Ring, and the D Ring. © NASA
The rings of Saturn seen by Cassini. From right to left: the A Ring with the Encke Gap, the Cassini Division, the B Ring, the C Ring, and the D Ring. © NASA

Janus and Epimetheus

The two coorbital satellites Janus and Epimetheus are a unique case in the Solar System, since these are two bodies with roughly the same size (diameters: ~180 and ~120 km, respectively), which share the same orbit around Saturn. More precisely, they both orbit Saturn in 16 hours, i.e. at the same mean orbital frequency. This is a case of 1:1 mean-motion resonance, involving peculiar mutual gravitational interactions, which prevent them from colliding. They swap their orbits every four years, i.e. the innermost of the two satellites becoming the outermost. The amplitudes of these swaps (26 km for Janus and 95 for Epimetheus) have permitted to know accurately the mass ratio between them, which is 3.56, Janus being the heaviest one.

Interestingly, Epimetheus is the first among the satellites of Saturn for which longitudinal librations have been detected. As many natural satellites, Janus and Epimetheus have a synchronous rotation, showing the same face to a fictitious observer at the surface of Saturn. For Epimetheus, large librations have been detected around this direction, which are a consequence of its elongated shape, and could reveal some mass inhomogeneities, maybe due to variations of porosity, and/or to its pretty irregular shape.

Janus and Epimetheus seen by Cassini (mosaic of 2 images). © NASA
Janus and Epimetheus seen by Cassini (mosaic of 2 images). © NASA

Images of a new ring

So, Cassini images have revealed a dusty ring in that zone. To characterize it, the authors have first extracted images likely to contain it. Such images are made publicly available on NASA’s Planetary Data System. Since that ring had been announced to have been observed on Sept 15th 2006 (see the original press release), the authors restricted to 2 days before and after that date. The data they used were acquired by the ISS (Imaging Science Subsystem) instrument of Cassini, more precisely the NAC and WAC (Narrow- and Wide-Angle-Camera). They finally found 17 images showing the ring.

The images are given as raw data. The authors needed to calibrate their luminosity with a tool (a software) provided by the Cassini team, and sometimes to smooth them, to remove cosmic rays. Moreover, they needed to consider the position of the spacecraft, to be able to precisely locate the structures they would see.

One of the Cassini images used by the authors. I have added red stars at the location of the ring. © NASA / Ciclops
One of the Cassini images used by the authors. I have added red stars at the location of the ring. © NASA / Ciclops

It appears that the ring presents no longitudinal brightness variation. In other words, not only this is a whole ring and not just an arc, but no density variation is obvious. However, it presents radial brightness variations, over a width of 7,500 km, which is wider than the 5,000 km announced in the 2006 press release.

The next step is to understand the dynamics of this ring, i.e. its stability, its origin, the properties of the particles constituting it… Let us start with the stability.

The ring is removed in a few decades

The authors ran N-body simulations, i.e. numerical integrations of the equations ruling the motion of a ring particle, which would be gravitationally perturbed by the surrounding bodies, i.e. Saturn, and the Janus, Epimetheus, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Titan. Moreover, for a reason that I will tell you at the end of this article, the authors knew that the particles were smaller than 13 μm. The motions of such small particles are affected by the radiation pressure of the Sun, in other words the Solar light pushes the particles outward.

The authors simulated 14 times the motion of 18,000 particles equally distributed in the rings. Why 14 times? To consider different particle sizes, i.e. one set with 100 μm-sized particles, and the other sets with sizes varying from 1μm to 13μm.
And it appears that these particles collide with something in a few decades, mostly Janus or Epimetheus. This leaves two possibilities: either we were very lucky to be able to take images of the ring while it existed, or a process constantly feeds the ring. The latter option is the most probable one. Let us now discuss this feeding process.

Renewing the ring

The likeliest sources of material for the rings are ejecta from Janus and Epimetheus. The question is: how were these ejecta produced? By impacts, probably. This study show that Janus and Epimetheus are impacted by the particles constituting the rings, but the impact velocities would not permit to produce ejecta. This is why the authors propose a model, in which interplanetary particles collide with the satellites, generating ejecta.

A firefly behavior

And let us finish with something funny: the ring seems to behave like a firefly, i.e. sometimes bright, and sometimes dark, which means undetectable while present.
To understand what happens, figure out how the light would cross a cloud of particles. If the cloud is dense enough, then it would reflect the light, and not be crossed. But for dust, the light would be refracted, i.e. change its direction. This depends on the incidence angle of the Solar light, i.e. on the geometrical configuration of the Sun-Saturn-ring system. The Solar incidence angle is also called phase. And this phase changes with the orbit of Saturn, which results in huge brightness variations of the ring. Sometimes it can be detected, but most of the time it cannot. This can be explained and numerically estimated by the Mie theory, which gives the diffusion of light by small particles. This theory also explains the creation of rainbows, the Solar light being diffracted by droplets of water.

The study and its authors

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

The mass of Cressida from Uranus’ rings

Hi there! Today I will present you a new way to weigh an inner satellite of a giant planet. This is the opportunity for me to present you Weighing Uranus’ moon Cressida with the η Ring by Robert O. Chancia, Matthew M. Hedman & Richard G. French. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Astronomical Journal.

The inner system of Uranus

Uranus is known to be the third planet of the Solar System by its radius, the 4th by its mass, and the 7th by its distance to the Sun. It is also known to be highly tilted, its polar axis almost being in its orbital plane. You may also know that it has 5 major satellites (Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, and Miranda), and that it has been visited by the spacecraft Voyager 2 in 1986. But here, we are interested in its inner system. If we traveled from the center of Uranus to the orbit of the innermost of its major satellites, i.e. Miranda, we would encounter:

  • At 25,559 km: the location where the atmosphere reaches the pressure 1 bar. This is considered to be the radius of the planet.
  • Between 37,850 and 41,350 km: the ζ Ring,
  • At 41,837 km: the 6 Ring,
  • At 42,234 km: the 5 Ring,
  • At 42,570 km: the 4 Ring,
  • At 44,718 km: the α Ring,
  • At 45,661 km: the β Ring,
  • At 47,175 km: the η Ring,
  • At 47,627 km: the γ Ring,
  • At 48,300 km: the δ Ring,
  • At 49,770 km: the satellite Cordelia (radius: 20 km),
  • At 50,023 km: the λ Ring,
  • At 51,149 km: the ε Ring
  • At 53,790 km: the satellite Ophelia (radius: 22 km),
  • At 59,170 km: the satellite Bianca (radius: 26 km),
  • At 61,780 km: the satellite Cressida (radius: 40 km),
  • At 62,680 km: the satellite Desdemona (radius: 34 km),
  • At 64,350 km: the satellite Juliet (radius: 47 km),
  • At 66,090 km: the satellite Portia (radius: 68 km),
  • Between 66,100 and 69,900 km: the ν Ring,
  • At 69,940 km: the satellite Rosalind (radius: 36 km),
  • At 74,800 km: the satellite Cupid (radius: 9 km),
  • At 75,260 km: the satellite Belinda (radius: 45 km),
  • At 76,400 km: the satellite Perdita (radius: 15 km),
  • At 86,010 km: the satellite Puck (radius: 81 km),
  • Between 86,000 and 103,000 km: the μ Ring,
  • In the μ Ring, at 97,700 km: the satellite Mab (radius: 13 km)
  • At 129,390 km: the satellite Miranda (radius: 236 km).

The rings of Uranus are being discovered since 1977. Originally it was from star occultations observed from the Earth. Then Voyager 2 visited Uranus in 1986, which revealed other rings, and more recently the Hubble Space Telescope imaged some of them, permitting other discoveries.. Most of them have a width of ≈1 km.
All of the inner moons have been discovered on Voyager 2 images, except Cupid and Mab, which have been discovered in 2003, once more thanks to Hubble. On the contrary, the major moons have been discovered between 1787 and 1948.

Today we will focus only on

  • At 47,175 km: the η Ring,
  • At 61,780 km: the satellite Cressida (radius: 40 km).

The η Ring is very close to the 3:2 mean-motion resonance (MMR) with Cressida, which means that any particle of the η Ring makes 3 revolutions around Uranus while Cressida makes 2. As a consequence, Cressida has a strong gravitational action on the η Ring.

Gravitational interactions

How do we know the mass of planetary bodies? When we send a spacecraft close enough, the spacecraft is deviated, and from the deviation we have the gravity field, or at least the mass. If we cannot send a spacecraft, then we can invert, i.e. analyze, the interactions between different bodies. We know the mass of the Sun thanks to the orbits of the planets, we know the mass of Jupiter thanks to the orbits of its satellites, and the deviations of the spacecraft. We can also use MMR. For instance, in the system of Saturn, the mass ratios between Mimas and Tethys, between Enceladus and Dione, and between Janus and Epimetheus, were accurately known before the arrival of Cassini, thanks to resonant relations.

We can have resonant interactions between a satellite and a ring, as well. A ring is actually a cloud of small particles, and the way their motion is affected reveals the gravitational interaction with something. When you have a MMR, then the ring exhibits streamlines, which give a pattern with equally spaced corners. From the number of these corners you can determine the MMR involved, and from the size of the pattern you get the mass of the disturbing satellite. This is exactly what happens here, i.e. 3:2 MMR with Cressida affects the η Ring in such a way that you can read the mass of Cressida from the shape of this ring. But for that, you need to be accurate enough on the location of the ring.

The data

The authors used 49 observations, including 3 Voyager 2 ones, the other ones being star occultations by rings. Such an observation should be anticipated, i.e. the relative position of Uranus with respect to thousands of stars is calculated, then the star has to be observed where possible, i.e. in a place where it will be high enough in the sky, and of course at night. You measure the light flux coming from the star, which should be pretty constant… and is not because of the variability of the atmospheric thickness since the star is moving in the sky (remember: the Earth rotates in one day), so you have to compensate with other stars… and if you detect a flux drop, then this means that something is occulting the star. Possibly a ring.
Most of the observations were made in the K band, i.e. at an infrared wavelength of 2.2 μm, where Uranus is fainter than its rings. These observations have been made between 1977 and 1996. Since then, the opening of the rings is too small, i.e. we see Uranus by the edge, which reduces the chances to occult a star.


The authors made a least-square fit. This means that they fitted their corpus of observations with a shape of the ring as R-A cos (mθ), where R is a constant radius, A is an amplitude of distortion of the ring, θ is the angle (a longitude), and m is a factor giving the frequency of the distortion, which could be related to its cause, i.e. the orbital motion of the satellite affecting the ring. You fit R, A and m, i.e. you adjust them so as to reduce the difference (the error, which is mathematically seen as a distance) between your model and the observations. From R you have a ring (and you can check whether there should be a ring there), from A you have the mass of the satellite, and from m and have its frequency (and you can check whether a known satellite has this frequency).
The authors show that the highest effect of the inner satellites on the rings should be the effect of Cressida on the η Ring, thanks to the 3:2 MMR.


The authors find that Cressida should have a density of 0.86±0.16 g.cm-3, which is lighter than water. Usually these bodies are supposed to be kind of porous dirty ice, which would mean this kind of density. This is the first measurement of the density of an inner satellite of Uranus. A comparison with other systems shows that this is much denser than the inner satellites of Saturn. However, the inner satellite of Jupiter Amalthea has a pretty similar density.

Finally the authors say that they used this method on other rings, and that additional results should be expected, so we stay tuned. They also say that a spacecraft orbiting Uranus would help knowing these satellites. I cannot agree more. Some years ago, a space mission named Uranus Pathfinder has been proposed to ESA, and another one, named Uranus orbiter and probe, has been proposed to NASA.

The study and the authors

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

The fate of the Alkyonides

Hello everybody! Today, I will tell you on the dynamics of the Alkyonides. You know the Alkyonides? No? OK… There are very small satellites of Saturn, i.e. kilometer-sized, which orbit pretty close to the rings, but outside. These very small bodies are known to us thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, and a recent study, which I present you today, has investigated their long-term evolution, in particular their stability. Are they doomed or not? How long can they survive? You will know this and more after reading this presentation of Long-term evolution and stability of Saturnian small satellites: Aegaeon, Methone, Anthe, and Pallene, by Marco Muñoz-Gutiérrez and Silvia Giuliatti Winter. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Alkyonides

As usually in planetary sciences, bodies are named after the Greek mythology, which is the case of the four satellites discussed today. But I must admit that I cheat a little: I present them as Alkyonides, while Aegeon is actually a Hecatoncheires. The Alkyonides are the 7 daughters of Alcyoneus, among them are Anthe, Pallene, and Methone.

Here are some of there characteristics:

Methone Pallene Anthe Aegaeon
Semimajor axis 194,402 km 212,282 km 196,888 km 167,425 km
Eccentricity 0 0.004 0.0011 0.0002
Inclination 0.013° 0.001° 0.015° 0.001°
Diameter 2.9 km 4.4 km 2 km 0.66 km
Orbital period 24h14m 27h42m 24h52m 19h24m
Discovery 2004 2004 2007 2009

For comparison, Mimas orbits Saturn at 185,000 km, and the outer edge of the A Ring, i.e. of the main rings of Saturn, is at 137,000 km. So, we are in the close system of Saturn, but exterior to the rings.

Discovery of Anthe, aka S/2007 S4. Copyright: NASA.
Discovery of Anthe, aka S/2007 S4. Copyright: NASA.

These bodies are in mean-motion resonances with main satellites of Saturn, more specifically:

  • Methone orbits near the 15:14 MMR with Mimas,
  • Pallene is close to the 19:16 MMR with Enceladus,
  • Anthe orbits near the 11:10 MMR with Mimas,
  • Aegaeon is in the 7:6 MMR with Mimas.

As we will see, these resonances have a critical influence on the long-term stability.

Rings and arcs

Beside the main and well-known rings of Saturn, rings and arcs of dusty material orbit at other locations, but mostly in the inner system (with the exception of the Phoebe ring). In particular, the G Ring is a 9,000 km wide faint ring, which inner edge is at 166,000 km… Yep, you got it: Aegaeon is inside. Some even consider it is a G Ring object.

Methone and Anthe have dusty arcs associated with them. The difference between an arc and a ring is that an arc is longitudinally bounded, i.e. it is not extended enough to constitute a ring. The Methone arc extends over some 10°, against 20° for the Anthe arc. The material composing them is assumed to be ejecta from Methone and Anthe, respectively.

However, Pallene has a whole ring, constituted from ejecta as well.

Why sometimes a ring, and sometimes an arc? Well, it tell us something on the orbital stability of small particles in these areas. Imagine you are a particle: you are kicked from home, i.e. your satellite, but you remain close to it… for some time. Actually you drift slowly. While you drift, you are somehow shaken by the gravitational action of the other satellites, which disturb your Keplerian orbit around the planet. If you are shaken enough, then you may leave the system of Saturn. If you are not, then you can finally be anywhere on the orbit of your satellite, and since you are not the only one to have been ejected (you feel better, don’t you?), then you and your colleagues will constitute a whole ring. If you are lucky enough, you can end up on the satellite.

The longer the arc (a ring is a 360° arc), the more stable the region.

Frequency diffusion

The authors studied

  1. the stability of the dusty particles over 18 years
  2. the stability of the satellites in the system of Saturn over several hundreds of kilo-years (kyr).

For the stability of the particles, they computed the frequency diffusion index. It consists in:

  1. Simulating the motion of the particles over 18 years,
  2. Determining the main frequency of the dynamics over the first 9 years, and over the last 9 ones,
  3. Comparing these two numbers. The smaller the difference, the more stable you are.

The numerical simulations is something I have addressed in previous posts: you use a numerical integrator to simulate the motion of the particle, in considering an oblate Saturn, the oblateness being mostly due to the rings, and several satellites. Our four guys, and Janus, Epimetheus, Mimas, Enceladus, and Tethys.

How resonances destabilize an orbit

When a planetary body is trapped in a mean-motion resonance, there is an angle, which is an integer combination of angles present in its dynamics and in the dynamics of the other body, which librates. An example is the MMR Aegaeon-Mimas, which causes the angle 7λMimas-6λAegaeonMimas to librate. λ is the mean longitude, and ϖ is the longitude of the pericentre. Such a resonance is supposed to affect the dynamics of the two satellites but, given their huge mass ratio (Mimas is between 300 and 500 millions times heavier than Aegaeon), only Aegaeon is affected. The resonance is at a given location, and Aegaeon stays there.
But a given resonance has some width, and several resonant angles (we say arguments) are associated with a resonance ratio. As a consequence, several resonances may overlap, and in that case … my my my…
The small body is shaken between different locations, its eccentricity and / or inclination can be raised, until being dynamically unstable…
And in this particular region of the system of Saturn, there are many resonances, which means that the stability of the discovered body is not obvious. This is why the authors studied it.


Stability of the dusty particles

The authors find that Pallene cannot clear its ring efficiently, despite its size. Actually, this zone is the most stable, wrt the dynamical environments of Anthe, Methone and Aegaeon. However, 25% of the particles constituting the G Ring should collide with Aegaeon in 18 years. This probably means that there is a mechanism, which refills the G Ring.

Stability of the satellites

From long-term numerical simulations over 400 kyr, i.e. more than one hundred millions of orbits, these 4 satellites are stable. For Pallene, the authors guarantee its stability over 64 Myr. Among the 4, this is the furthest satellite from Saturn, which makes it less affected by the resonances.

A perspective

The authors mention as a possible perspective the action of the non-gravitational forces, such as the solar radiation pressure and the plasma drag, which could affect the dynamics of such small bodies. I would like to add another one: the secular tides with Saturn, and the pull of the rings. They would induce drifts of the satellites, and of the resonances associated. The expected order of magnitude of these drifts would be an expansion of the orbits of a few km / tens of km per Myr. This seems pretty small, but not that small if we keep in mind that two resonances affecting Methone are separated by 4 km only.

This means that further results are to be expected in the upcoming years. The Cassini mission is close to its end, scheduled for 15 Sep 2017, but we are not done with exploiting its results!

To know more…

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

On the stability of Chariklo

Hi there! Do you remember Chariklo? You know, this asteroid with rings (see this post on their formation). Today, we will not speak on the formation of the rings, but of the asteroid itself. I present you the paper entitled The dynamical history of Chariklo and its rings, by J. Wood, J. Horner, T. Hinse and S. Marsden, which has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal. It deals with the dynamical stability of the asteroid Chariklo as a Centaur, i.e. when Chariklo became a Centaur, and for how long.


Chariklo is a large asteroid orbiting between the orbits of Saturn and Uranus, i.e. it is a Centaur. It is the largest known of them, with a diameter of ~250 km. It orbits the Sun on an elliptic orbit, with an eccentricity of 0.18, inducing variations of its distance to the Sun between 13.08 (perihelion) and 18.06 au (aphelion), au being the astronomical unit, close to 150 millions km.
But the main reason why people are interested in Chariklo is the confirmed presence of rings around it, while the scientific community expected rings only around large planets. These rings were discovered during a stellar occultation, i.e. Chariklo occulting a distant star. From the multiple observations of this occultation in different locations of the Earth’s surface, 2 rings were detected, and announced in 2014. Since then, rings have been hinted around Chiron, which is the second largest one Centaur, but this detection is still doubtful.
Anyway, Chariklo contributes to the popularity of the Centaurs, and this study is focused on it.

Small bodies populations in the Solar System

The best known location of asteroids in the Solar System is the Main Belt, which is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Actually, there are small bodies almost everywhere in the Solar System, some of them almost intersecting the orbit of the Earth. Among the other populations are:

  • the Trojan asteroids, which share the orbit of Jupiter,
  • the Centaurs, which orbit between Saturn and Uranus,
  • the Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), which orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. They can be split into the Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), which have pretty regular orbits, some of them being stabilized by a resonant interaction with Neptune, and the Scattered Disc Objects (SDOs), which have larger semimajor axes and high eccentricities
  • the Oort cloud, which was theoretically predicted as a cloud of objects orbiting near the cosmological boundary of our Solar System. It may be a reservoir of comets, these small bodies with an eccentricity close to 1, which can sometimes visit our Earth.

The Centaurs are interesting from a dynamical point of view, since their orbits are not that stable, i.e. it is estimated that they remain in the Centaur zone in about 10 Myr. Since this is very small compared to the age of our Solar System (some 4.5 Gyr), the fact that Centaurs are present mean that the remaining objects are not primordial, and that there is at least one mechanism feeding this Centaur zone. In other words, the Centaurs we observe were somewhere else before, and they will one day leave this zone, but some other guys will replace them.

There are tools, indicators, helpful for studying and quantifying this (in)stability.

Stability, Lyapunov time, and MEGNO

Usually, an orbiting object is considered as “stable” (actually, we should say that its orbit is stable) if it orbits around its parent body for ever. Reasons for instability could be close encounters with other orbiting objects, these close encounters being likely to be favored by a high eccentricity, which could itself result from gravitational interactions with perturbing objects.
To study the stability, it is common to study chaos instead. And to study chaos, it is common to actually study the dependency on initial conditions, i.e. the hyperbolicity. If you hold a broom vertically on your finger, it lies in a hyperbolic equilibrium, i.e. a small deviation will dramatically change the way it will fall… but trust me, it will fall anyway.
And a good indicator of the hyperbolicity is the Lyapunov time, which is a timescale beyond which the trajectory is so much sensitive on the initial conditions that you cannot accurately predict it anymore. It will not necessarily become unstable: in some cases, known as stable chaos, you will have your orbit confined in a given zone, you do not know where it is in this zone. The Centaur zone has some kind of stable chaos (over a given timescale), which partly explains why some bodies are present there anyway.
To estimate the Lyapunov time, you have to integrate the differential equations ruling the motion of the body, and the ones ruling its tangent vector, i.e. tangent to its trajectory, which will give you the sensitivity to the initial conditions. If you are hyperbolic, then the norm of this tangent vector will grow exponentially, and from its growth rate you will have the Lyapunov time. Easy, isn’t it? Not that much. Actually this exponential growth is an asymptotic behavior, i.e. when time goes to infinity… i.e. when it is large enough. And you have to integrate over a verrrrry loooooooong time…
Fortunately, the MEGNO (Mean Exponential Growth of Nearby Orbits) indicator was invented, which converges much faster, and from which you can determine the Lyapunov time. If you are hyperbolic, the Lyapunov time is contained in the growth rate of the MEGNO, and if not, the MEGNO tends to 2, except for pretty simple systems (like the rotation of synchronous bodies), where it tends to zero.

We have now indicators, which permit to quantify the instability of the orbits. As I said, these instabilities are usually physically due to close encounters with large bodies, especially Uranus for Centaurs. This requires to define the Hill and the Roche limits.

Hill and Roche limits

First the Roche limit: where an extended body orbits too close to a massive object, the difference of attraction it feels between its different parts is stronger than its cohesion forces, and it explodes. As a consequence, satellites of giant planets survive only as rings below the Roche limit. And the outer boundary of Saturn’s rings is inner and very close to the Roche limit.

Now the Hill limit: it is the limit beyond which you feel more the attraction of the body you meet than the parent star you both orbit. This may result in being trapped around the large object (a giant planet), or more probably a strong deviation of your orbit. You could then become hyperbolic, and be ejected from the Solar System.

This paper

This study consists in backward numerical integrations of clones of Chariklo, i.e. you start with many fictitious particles (the authors had 35,937 of them) which do not interact with each others, but interact with the giant planets, and which are currently very close to the real Chariklo. Numerical integration over such a long timespan requires accurate numerical integrators, the authors used a symplectic one, i.e. which presents mathematical properties limiting the risk of divergence over long times. Why 1 Gyr? The mean timescale of survival (called here half-life, i.e. during which you lose half of your population) is estimated to be 10 Myr, so 1 Gyr is 100 half-lives. They simulated the orbits and also drew MEGNO maps, i.e. estimated the Lyapunov time with respect to the initial orbital elements of the particle. Not surprisingly, the lower the eccentricity, the more stable the orbit.

And the result is: Chariklo is in a zone of pretty stable chaos. Moreover, it is probably a Centaur since less than 20 Myr, and was a Trans-Neptunian Object before. This means that it was exterior to Neptune, while it is now interior. In a few simulations, Chariklo finds its origin in the inner Solar System, i.e. the Main Belt, which could have favored a cometary activity (when you are closer to the Sun, you are warmer, and your ice may sublimate), which could explain the origin of the rings. But the authors do not seem to privilege this scenario, as it supported by only few simulations.

What about the rings?

The authors wondered if the rings would have survived a planetary encounter, which could be a way to date them in case of no. But actually it is a yes: they found that the distance of close encounter was large enough with respect to the Hill and Roche limits to not affect the rings. So, this does not preclude an ancient origin for the rings… But a specific study of the dynamics of the rings would be required to address this issue, i.e. how stable are they around Chariklo?

To know more

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