Pluto and Charon seen by New Horizons. © NASA

OSSOS discovered 838 Trans-Neptunian Objects

Hi there! Today I will tell you of the survey OSSOS, which I already mentioned in the past. This survey made systematic observations of the sky to detect Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), between 2013 and 2017. It was indeed a success, since it tripled the number of known TNOs. Its results are presented in OSSOS. VII. 800+ Trans-Neptunian Objects — The complete Data Release, led by Michele Bannister. This study is published in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

Previous surveys

The Trans-Neptunian Objects orbit beyond the orbit of Neptune. As such, observing them is a challenge. Pluto was the only known of them from its discovery in 1930, to the discovery of (15760) Albion in 1992. We now know 1,142 Trans-Neptunian Objects, essentially due to 4 surveys. The most prolific of them is the last one, i.e. OSSOS, but a survey cannot exist without its precursors, which were

  1. Deep Ecliptic Survey (DES),
  2. Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS),
  3. Pan-STARRS1.
The Deep Ecliptic Survey (DES)

The Deep Ecliptic Survey has been operating between 1998 and 2003, using two 4-m telescopes of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory: the Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak Observatory (Arizona, USA), and the Blanco telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (Chile). It discovered 382 TNOs, including some Centaurs, which actually orbit inner to the orbit of Neptune. It covered 550 square degrees with sensitivity of 22.5.

The Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS)

This survey operated between early 2003 and early 2007, at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (Hawaii, USA). It covered 321 square degrees with sensitivity of 24.4, and permitted to classify 169 TNOs. By classifying, I do not mean only discover, but also know their orbits with enough accuracy to determine to which dynamical group they belong. I will go back on this point later, but my meaning is that observing an object once is definitely not enough. This survey was limited to the detection of objects with a small inclination with respect to the ecliptic plane, i.e. the orbit of the Earth.

It was then extended by the High Ecliptic Latitude (HiLat) component, which looked for objects with significant inclinations. It examined 701 square degrees of sky ranging from 12° to 85° ecliptic latitude and discovered 24 TNOs, with inclinations between 15° and 104° (from Petit et al., 2017, The Canada-France Ecliptic Plane Survey (CFEPS) — High-latitude component, The Astronomical Journal, 153:5.

The Pan-STARRS1 survey

The Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS1) survey operates from Haleakala Observatory, Hawaii, USA since 2010. It is not specifically devoted for TNOs, but for moving objects (asteroids, stars,…), and is particularly known for the discovery of the first known interstellar object, i.e. 1I/’Oumuamua. It discovered 370 new TNOs, but without enough information to securely classify their orbits.

And now comes OSSOS!

The Outer Solar System Origins Survey (OSSOS)

OSSOS operated between 2013 and 2017 from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, taking more than 8,000 images. It covered 155 square degrees with a sensitivity up to 25.2. This coverage has been split into 8 blocks, which avoided the Galactic plane. The study I present today is the complete data release, in which 838 objects are given without ambiguity on their orbital classification. This was an international collaboration, involving Canada, UK, France, Taiwan, USA, Finland, Japan, Slovakia,… but also involving different skills, like orbital characterization, astrometry, chemistry, cometary activity, data mining, etc. In other words, it not only aimed at discovering new objects, but also at understanding their orbital dynamics, their physics, and if possible their origin.

In the previous paragraphs I pointed out the difference between discovering an object, and classifying it following its orbit. Let us see that now.

Characterizing a new TNO

As we will see in the next paragraph, the Trans-Neptunian population is composed of different parts, following the orbits of the objects and the perturbations acting on them, i.e. the gravitational attraction of the giant planets. Classifying a newly discovered object requires some accuracy in the determination of its orbit. The following is a summary of how things work.

For an object to be discovered, it must appear on a triplet of images, which cover a timespan of about 2 hours. From it the relative motion of the object on the sky can be evaluated, which would permit to reobserve it. The new observations permit themselves to better constrain the orbit. The OSSOS team announces that an arc of observations of about 16 months is required to have enough confidence in the orbit. In many cases the arc is longer, actually the team tells us that for the 838 classified objects, astrometric measurements have been made over 2 to 5 oppositions. An opposition is the geometric alignment between the Sun, the Earth, and the object.

For an astrometric measurement to be accurate, you need to accurately know the positions of the other objects present on the image. These other objects are stars, which are referenced in astrometric catalogues. The astrometric satellite Gaia is currently performing such a survey. Its Data Release 2 has very recently (April 2018) been released, but this was too late for the present study. So, the authors used the Data Release 1, and the Pan-STARRS 1 catalogue when necessary.

In some cases, objects were lost, i.e. the authors were not able to reobserve it. This may have been due to the lack of accuracy of the orbital determination from the discovery arc, or just because the object left a covered zone.

Before giving you the results, I should tell you something on the structure of the outer Solar System. I mentioned orbital classification above, the classes are coming now.

Structure of the outer Solar System

First, we should make a distinction between resonant and non-resonant orbits.

Resonant orbits are in mean-motion resonance with a planet, which is mostly Neptune. For instance, the 2:1 resonance with Neptune means that Neptune accomplishes two revolutions around the Sun while the object makes exactly one. Such a ratio implies amplified dynamical effects on the object, which may excite its eccentricity or its inclination, destabilize or confine its orbit.

Besides these resonant objects are the non-resonant ones (you guessed it, didn’t you?). They are classified following their orbital elements:

  • Centaurs: they orbit inner to the orbit of Neptune, i.e. their semimajor axis is smaller than 30 AU. As such, they are not TNOs strictly speaking,
  • Inner-belt objects: here the belt is the Kuiper Belt, not to be confused with the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. This objects orbit between the orbit of Neptune and the 3:2 resonance, i.e. the orbit of Pluto, at 39.4 AU.
  • Main-belt objects: between the 3:2 and the 2:1 resonance, i.e. between 39.4 and 47.7 AU.
  • Outer-belt objects: they orbit beyond the 2:1 resonance and have an eccentricity smaller than 0.24.
  • Detached objects: not only they orbit beyond the 2:1 resonance, but also have an eccentricity larger than 0.24. As a consequence, they may have very large semi-major axes, but could be detected since their perihelion distance, i.e. their closest distance to the Sun, is accessible to our terrestrial instruments. This is made possible by their high eccentricity. Among these objects are the eTNOs (e for extreme) mentioned here.

And now the results.

Key results

1,142 TNOs (including Centaurs) are now classified, 838 of them thanks to OSSOS. Among these 838 objects, 313 are resonant, including 132 in the 3:2 resonance, 39 in the 7:4 and 34 in the 2:1, and 525 are non-resonant. 421 of the non-resonant object are in the main belt, i.e. between the 3:2 and the 2:1 resonances.

Among the remarkable other results are

  • There should be about 90,000 detached objects with a diameter larger than 100 km, and probably less than 1,000 so large Centaurs,
  • the inner Kuiper Belt practically starts at 37 AU,
  • the population of low-inclination objects extends to at least 49 AU, but there is a huge concentration of them between 42.5 and 44.5 AU,
  • the inclinations are larger in the 3:2 resonance (the Plutinos) than in the 2:1,
  • securely occupied resonances exist at least up to 130 AU, which is the location of the 9:1 resonance.

The word origins appear in OSSOS. Actually, knowing the distribution of the Kuiper Belt Objects tells us something on the evolution of our Solar System.

Constraining the evolution of the Solar System

A TNO is a small body. This implies that, when perturbed by a giant planet, it just endures the orbital shacking. The consequence is that the giant planets have a strong enough gravitational potential to shape the Kuiper Belt. When perturbed, an object might get inclined, eccentric, be ejected, confined…

There are several competing models of the evolution of the Solar System, which implies migration of the giant planets. When a giant planet migrates, its perturbation migrates as well, and you should see the consequences on the Kuiper Belt. This is how an accurate snapshot of the Kuiper Belt might tell us something on the past of our Solar System, and if you constrain its evolution, then you can be tempted to transpose it to extrasolar systems. Moreover, this could give clues on the Planet Nine…

The OSSOS team provides software, which include a survey simulator, checking the relevance of a predicted model for the Kuiper Belt, when compared to the observations.

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.

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