Can the Recurrent Novae RS Oph Become Type Ia Supernovae?

A new kind of supernova. Credit: Tony Piro


The classical scenario for creating Type Ia supernovae is a white dwarf star accreting mass from a nearby star entering the red giant phase. The growing red giant fills its Roche lobe and matter falls onto the white dwarf, pushing it over the Chandrasekhar limit causing a supernova. However, this assumes that the white dwarf is already right at the tipping point. In many cases, the white dwarf is well below the Chandrasekhar limit and matter piles up on the surface. It then ignites as a smaller nova blowing off most (if not all) of the material it worked so hard to collect.

A new paper by a group of European astronomers considers how this cycle will affect the overall accumulation of mass on the white dwarfs which undergo recurrent novae. In a previous, more simplistic 1D study (Yaron et al. 2005) simulations revealed that a net mass gain is possible if the white dwarf accumulates an average of 10-8 times the mass of the Sun each year. However, at this rate, the study suggested that most of the mass would be lost again in the resulting novae, and even a minuscule gain of 0.05 solar masses would take on the order of millions of years. If this was the case, then building up the required mass to explode as a Type Ia supernova would be out of reach for many white dwarfs since, if it took too much longer, the companion’s red giant phase would end and the dwarf would be out of material to gobble.

For their new study, the European team simulated the case of RS Ophiuchi (RS Oph) in a 3D situation. The simulation did not only take into consideration the mass loss from the giant onto the dwarf, but also included the evolution of the orbits (which would also influence the accretion rates) and varied rates for the velocity of the matter being lost from the giant. Unsurprisingly, the team found that for slower mass loss rates from the giant, the dwarf was able to accumulate more. “The accretion rates change from
around 10%  [of the mass of the red giant] in the slow case to roughly 2% in the fast case.”

What was not immediately obvious is that the loss of angular momentum as the giant shed its layers resulted in a decrease in the separation of the stars. In turn, this meant the giant and dwarf grew closer together and the accretion rate increased further. Overall they determined the current accretion rate for RS Oph was already higher than the 10-8 solar masses per year necessary for a net gain and due to the decreasing orbital distance, it would only improve. Since RS Oph’s mass is precipitously close to the 1.4 solar mass Chandrasekhar limit, they suggest, “RS Oph is a good candidate for a progenitor of an SN Ia.”

New Results from the CDMS II Experiment

It’s no secret that astronomers claim that most of our universe is made of dark matter that cannot be readily detected. From Fritz Zwicky’s observations of the Coma clusters in the 1920’s which suggested that additional mass would be necessary to hold the cluster together, to the flat rotation curves of galaxies, to lensing in such places as the Bullet Cluster, all signs point to matter that neither emits nor absorbs any form of light we can detect. One possible solution was that this missing matter was ordinary, but cold matter floating around the universe. This form was called Massive astrophysical compact halo objects, or MACHOs, but studies to look for these came up relatively empty. The other option was that this dark matter was not so garden variety. It posed the idea of hypothetical particles which were very massive, but would only rarely interact. These particles were nicknamed WIMPs (for weakly interacting massive particles). But if these particles were so weakly interacting, detecting them would be a challenge.

An ambitious project, known as the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search, has been attempting to detect one of these particles since 2003. Today, they made a major announcement.

The experiment is located a half-mile underground in the Soudan mine in northern Minnesota. The detector is kept here to shield it from cosmic rays. The detectors are made from germanium and silicon which, if struck by a potential WIMP, will become ionized and resonate. The combination of these two features allow for the team to gain some insight as to what sort of particle it was that triggered the event. To further weed out false detections, the detectors are all cooled to just above absolute zero which prevents most of the “noise” caused by the random jittering of atoms thanks to their temperature.

Although the detector had not previously found signs for any dark matter they have provided understanding of the background levels to the degree that the team felt confident that they would be able to begin distinguishing true events. Despite this, false positives from neutron collisions have required the team to “throw out roughly 2/3 of the data that might contain WIMPs, because these data would contain too many background events.”

The most recent review of the data covered the 2007-2008 set. After carefully cleaning the data of as many false events and as much background noise as possible the team discovered that two detection events remained. The significance of these two detections was the result of today’s conference.

Although the presence of these two detections from 8/5 and 10/27 2007, could not be ruled out as genuine dark matter detections, the presence of only two detections was not statistically significant enough to be able to truly stand out from the background noise. As the summary of results from the team described it, “Typically there must be less than one chance in a thousand of the signal being due to background. In this case, a signal of about 5 events would have met those criteria.” As such, there is only a 1:4 probability that this was a true case of a detection of WIMPs.

Astronomer turned writer, Phil Plait put it slightly more succinctly in a tweet; “The CDMS dark matter talk indicates two signals, but they are not statistically strong enough to say “here be dark matter”. Damn.”

For more information:

Collaboration’s Website

Liveblogging of Conference by Cosmic Variance

Reexamining a Cataclysm

Image of Earth's Moon centered on the Orientale Basin taken by Galileo Spacecraft.


One of the legacies of the Apollo program is the rare lunar samples it returned. These samples (along with meteorites that originated from the moon and even one from Mars) can be radiometrically dated, and together they paint a picture a cataclysmic time in the history of our solar system. Over a period of time some 3.8 to 4.1 billion years ago, the moon underwent a fierce period of impacts that was the origin of most of the craters we see today. Paired with the “Nice model” (named after the French university where it was developed, not because it was pleasant in any way), which describes the migration of planets to their current orbits, it is widely held that the migration of Jupiter or one of the other gas giants migrations during this period, caused a shower of asteroids or comets to rain down upon the inner solar system in a time known as the “Late Heavy Bombardment” (LHB).

A new paper by astronomers from Harvard and the University of British Columbia disagrees with this picture. In 2005, Strom et al. published a paper in Science which analyzed the frequency of craters of various sizes on the lunar highlands, Mars, and Mercury (since these are the only rocky bodies in the inner solar system without sufficient erosion to wash away their cratering history). When comparing relatively young surfaces which had been more recently resurfaced to older ones from the Late Heavy Bombardment area, is that there were two separate, but characteristic curves. The one for the LHB era revealed a crater frequency peaking at craters near 100 km (62 miles) in diameter and dropping off rapidly to lower diameters. Meanwhile, the younger surfaces showed a nearly even amount of craters of all sizes measurable. Additionally, the LHB impacts were an order of magnitude more common than the newer ones.

The Strom et al. took this as evidence that two different populations of impactors were at work. The LHB era, they called Population I. The more recent, they called Population II. What they noticed was the current size distribution of main belt asteroids (MBAs) was “virtually identical to the Population 1 projectile size distribution”. Additionally, since the size distribution of the MBA is the same today, this indicated that the process which sent these bodies our way didn’t discriminate based on size, which would weed out that size and alter the distribution we observed today. This ruled out processes such as the Yarkovsky effect but agreed with the gravitational shove as a large body would move through the region. The inverse of this (that a process was selecting rocks to chuck our way based on size) would be indicative of Strom’s Population II objects.

However, in this paper recently uploaded to arXiv, Cuk et al. argue that the dates of many of the regions investigated by Strom et al. cannot be reliably dated and therefore, cannot be used to investigate the nature of the LHB. They suggest that only the Imbrium and Orientale basins, which have their formation dates precisely known from rocks retrieved by Apollo missions, can be used to accurately describe the cratering history during this period.

With this assumption, Cuk’s group reexamined the frequency of crater sizes for just these basins. When this was plotted for these two groups, they found that the power law they used to fit the data had “an index of -1.9 or -2 rather than -1.2 or -1.3 (like the modern asteroid belt)”. As such, they claim, “theoretical models producing the lunar cataclysm by gravitational ejection of main-belt asteroids are seriously challenged.”

Although they call into question Strom et al.’s model, they cannot propose a new one. They suggest some causes that are unlikely, such as comets (which have too low of impact probabilities). One solution they mention is that the population of the asteroid belt has evolved since the LHB which would account for the differences. Regardless, they conclude that this question is more open ended than previously expected and that more work will need to be done to understand this cataclysm.

Spirals, Tides, and M51

Spiral galaxies are undoubtedly one of the most beautiful structures in the universe. Yet, their simple elegance belies a complex nature. How do such structures not “wind up” and what causes them in the first place? The answers to these questions is a long standing challenge. Under one model, spiral structure is created by spiral density waves. In another, they are induced by tidal interactions. It is this approach that is explored in a new paper by Dobbs et al., accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Specifically, the authors attempted to use modeling of tidal forces to recreate the structure of the spiral arms on the grand design spiral, M51.

M51sim1To model the interaction, they began with a model of a simple galaxy with a mass distribution (broken into a disc, bulge, and halo) similar to that for M51. Their initial galaxy was initially free of spiral structure, but “gravitational instabilities in the stars [Note: as opposed to the galactic gas. Not in individual stars.] produce a multi-armed” and patchy spiral structure (known as a flocculent spiral). This flocculent nature was first predicted in a 1964 paper by Toomre and has been simulated numerous times since then. Dobbs’ team then introduced a point source to represent the smaller galaxy (NGC 5195) along the orbital parameters derived by previous simulations of Theis and Spinneker in 2003.

For the first 60 million years, significant new structure was not evidence. The disc showed some perturbation due to the approaching companion, but no new spiral structure arose. However, by 120 million years from the start of the simulation, hints of a spiral arm on the side of the galaxy closest to the companion begin forming and by 180 million years, two pronounced “grand design” spiral arms dominate the face of the galaxy, spanning over 15,000 light years.

But the arms were too good to last. By 240 million years, the arms only stretch to a mere 6,500 light years as the gravitational forces from the companion seem to shepherd the galaxy’s gas as it is pulled around in its orbit. By 300 million years, the spiral arms have grown again and the pair looks remarkably similar to the present state of the M51/NGC 5195 system.

Comparison of simulation at 300 million years to HST image.
Comparison of simulation at 300 million years to HST image.

The authors note several features their simulation has in common with the observed galaxy. On the side where the companion first approached the galaxy, they note a “kink” in one arm (labeled as A in image to left). Another similarity is a splitting of one of the spiral arms although, again, the exact positioning is different (labeled B).

Another comparison the authors made was to the strengths (or amplitude) of various arm patterns (1 arm, 2 arm, 3 arm, etc…) over time. They found that the two armed pattern was the most predominant, but from the mechanics, they determined there were underlying higher armed structures that never fully took hold. However, these higher armed patterns did come close to the strength of the 2 arm spiral. The authors note that this is consistent with the observational findings of another group studying M51 in a work that has yet to be prepared for publication.

However, there are also some differences. A plume of gas extended from the simulated M51 which has no counterpart in actual observations (labeled C). Actual observations show large amounts of gas in front of the companion galaxy which are not present to the same degree in the simulation (labeled D). Lastly, real observations show a noticeable flattening of M51’s arms closest to the companion. Again, these do not appear in the simulation. The authors suggest discrepancies may be due to the over simplistic modeling of NGC 5195 as a point source instead of an extended body, or slight differences in initial parameters when compared to the actual system.

Even with these differences, the authors suggest that their modeling of the interaction shows that spiral structure, at least in this case, is most likely the result of the tidal interaction on M51 by NGC 5195. They also note that spiral density waves are likely not the culprit since other studies have not been able to determine a consistent “pattern speed” for the galaxy (the pattern speed is the angular speed at which the arms would rotate if viewed as a coherent structure). Instead, observations showed that the arms should have different pattern speeds at different radii.

Although their work does not suggest that all spiral structure is formed by tidal interactions with companions, this work makes a strong case for the possibility in many galaxies which would have such companions and M51 in specific. Furthermore, the simulations also reveal that these tidally induced arms are a temporary phenomenon. Since they do not have a fixed speed, they will slowly wind up and as the interaction progresses, the galaxies will be further distorted and eventually merge.

(Thanks to Claire Dobbs for permission to reproduce images from the paper as well as clarification on a few points.)

Forming Planets Around Binary Stars

Young binarys stars: Image credit: NASA


Fanciful science fiction and space art frequently depict the lovely visage of a twin sunset where a pair of binary stars dips below the horizon (think Star Wars). While it has been established that planets could exist in such a system by orbiting in resonances, that only holds true for fully formed planets. Can forming star systems even support an accretion disk from which to form planets? This is the question a new paper by M. G. Petr-Gotzens and S. Daemgen of the European Southern Observatory with S Correia from the Astronomiches Institut Potsdam attempts to answer.

Observations of single young stars with disks have revealed that the main force causing the dispersion of the disk is the star itself. The stellar wind and radiation pressure blow the disk away within 6 to 10 million years. Predictably, more massive and hotter stars will disperse their disks more quickly. However, “many stars are members of a binary or multiple system, and for nearby solar-like stars the binary fraction is even as high as ~60%.” Could gravitational perturbations or the added intensity from two stars strip disks before planets could form?

To explore this, the team observed 22 young and forming binary star systems in the Orion Nebula to look for signs of disks. They used two primary methods: The first was to look for excess emission in the near infrared. This would trace accretion disks as they radiate away absorbed energy as heat. The second was to look spectroscopically for specific bromine emission that is excited as the magnetic field of the young star pulls this (and other) elements from the disk onto the stars surface.

When the results were analyzed they found that as much as 80% of the binary systems had an active accretion disk. Many only contained a disk around the primary star although nearly as many contained disks around both stars. Only one system had evidence of an accretion disk around only the secondary (lower mass) star. They authors note, “[t]he under-representation of active accretion
disks among secondaries hints at disk dissipation working faster on (potentially) lower mass secondaries, leading us to speculate that secondaries are possibly less likely to form planets.”

However, the average age of the stars observed was only ~1 million years. This means that, even though disks may be able to form, the study was not comprehensive enough to determine whether or not they would last. Yet a survey of the currently known extra-solar planets reveal that they must. The authors comment, “[a]lmost 40 of all the extra-solar planets discovered to date reside in wide binary systems where the component separation is larger than 100AU (large enough that planet formation around one star should not strongly be inuenced [sic] by the companion star).”

Strangely, this seems to stand at odds with a 2007 paper by Trilling et al. which studied other binary systems for the same IR excess indicative of debris disks. In their study, they determined “[a] very large fraction (nearly 60%) of observed binary systems
with small (<3 AU) separations have excess thermal emission.” This suggests that such close systems may indeed be able to retain disks for some time. It is unclear on whether or not it can be retained long enough to form planets although it seems unlikely since no exoplanets are known around close binaries.

Dating a Cluster – A New Trick

The hundreds of thousands of stars orbiting inside the globular cluster M13 (HST/NASA)


Finding the ages of things in astronomy is hard. While it is undoubted that the properties of objects change as they age, the difficulty lies in that the initial parameters are often so varied that, for most cases, finding reliable ages is challenging. There’s some tricks to do it though. One of the best ones, taught conceptually in introductory astronomy courses, is to use the “main sequence turn-off” of a cluster. Of course, applying any of these methods is easier said than done, but a new method may help alleviate some of the challenges and allow for smaller errors.

The largest difficulty in the main sequence turn-off method lies in the inherent scatter caused by numerous sources that must be accounted for. Stars that lie along the same line of sight as the cluster being observed can add extraneous data points. Any interstellar reddening caused by gas may make stars appear more red than they should be. Close binary stars that cannot be spatially resolved appear brighter than they should be as an individual star. The amount of heavy elements in the star will also effect the fitting of the model. All of these factors and more contribute to an uncertainty in any calculation that requires an accurate Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram. Tricks to correct for some of these factors exist. Others cannot (yet) be accounted for.

Thanks to all these problems, fitting the data can often be challenging. Finding the point where the cluster “peels away” from the main sequence is difficult, so one of the tricks is to look for other points that should have significant numbers of stars to provide extra reference points for fitting. Examples of this include the horizontal branch and the red clump.

The new technique, developed by a large team of international astronomers, uses “a well defined knee located along the lower main sequence” which they refer to as the Main Sequence Knee (MSK). This “knee” appears in H-R diagrams of the clusters taken in the near-infrared and is largely independent of the age of the cluster. As such, it provides a stable reference point to improve corrections for the general main sequence turn-off method. Additionally, since this system uses infrared wavelengths, it is less prone to contamination between gas and dust.

To test this new method, the group selected a globular cluster (NGC 3201) as a test case. When their method was applied, they found that their derived age for the cluster was consistent with ages derived by other methods.

However, the new method is not without difficulties of its own. Since the knee is at the faint end of the main sequence, this requires that exposure times for target clusters be sufficiently long to bring out such faint stars. Fortunately, with new telescopes like the the James Webb Space Telescope, these faint stars should be in reach.

How Galaxies Lose Their Gas

Galaxy mergers, such as the Mice Galaxies will be part of Galaxy Zoo's newest project. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope
The Mice galaxies, merging. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

As galaxies evolve, many lose their gas. But how they do this is a point of contention. One possibility is that it is used to form stars when the galaxies undergo intense periods of star formation known as starburst. Another is that when large galaxies collide, the stars pass through one another but the gas gets left behind. It’s also possible that the gas is pulled out in close passes to other galaxies through tidal forces. Yet another possibility involves a wind blowing the gas out as galaxies plunge through the thin intergalactic medium in clusters through a process known as ram pressure.

A new paper lends fresh evidence to one of these hypotheses. In this paper, astronomers from the University of Arizona were interested in galaxies that displayed long gas tails, much like a comet. Earlier studies had found such galaxies, but it was unclear whether or not this gas tail was pulled out from tidal forces, or pushed out from ram pressure.

To help determine the cause of this the team used new observations from Spitzer to look for subtle differences in the causes of a tail following the galaxy ESO 137-001. In cases where tails are known to be pulled out tidally (such as in the M81/M82 system), there “is no physical reason why the gas would be preferentially stripped over stars.” Stars from the galaxy are pulled out as well and often large amounts of new star formation are induced. Meanwhile, ram pressure tails should be largely free of stars although some new star formation may be expected if there is turbulence in the tail which causes regions of higher density (think like the wake of a boat).

Examining the tail spectroscopically, the team was unable to detect the presence of large numbers of stars suggesting tidal processes were not responsible. Furthermore, the disk of the galaxy seemed relatively undisturbed by gravitational interactions. To support this, the team calculated the relative strengths of the forces acting on the galaxy. They found that, between the tidal forces acting on the galaxy from its parent cluster, and its own centripetal forces, the internal forces where greater, which reaffirmed that tidal forces were an unlikely cause for the tail.

But to confirm that ram pressure was truly responsible, the astronomers looked at other parameters. First they estimated the gravitational force for the galaxy. In order to strip the gas, the force generated by the ram pressure would have to exceed the gravitational one. The energy imparted on the gas would then be measurable as a temperature in the gas tail which could be compared to the expected values. When this was observed, they found that the temperature was consistent with what would be necessary for ram stripping.

From this, they also set limits on how long gas could last in such a galaxy. They determined that in such circumstances, the gas would be entirely stripped from a galaxy in ~500 million to 1 billion years. However, because the density of the gas through which the galaxy would slowly become denser as it passed through the more central regions of the cluster, they suggest the timescale would be much simpler. While this timescale say seem long, it is still shorter than the time it takes such galaxies to make a full orbit in their cluster. As such, it is possible that even in one pass, a galaxy may lose its gas.

If the gas loss occurs on such short timescales, this would further predict that tails like the one observed for ESO 137-001 should be rare. The authors note that an “X-ray survey of 25 nearby hot clusters only discovered 2 galaxies with X-ray tails.”

Although this new study in no way rules out other methods of removing a galaxy’s gas, this is one of the first galaxies for which the ram stripping method is conclusively demonstrated.


A Warm Molecular Hydrogen Tail Due to Ram Pressure Stripping of a Cluster Galaxy

Slow-Motion Supernova

This artist’s impression of a supernova shows the layers of gas ejected prior to the final deathly explosion of a massive star. Credit: NASA/Swift/Skyworks Digital/Dana Berry


Supernovae are generally considered as fast and furious events. For the Type II, core collapse supernovae, the core implodes almost instantaneously although it takes some time for the shockwave to escape the star. As it does, the star brightens in what’s known as the “rise time” of the supernova. For most Type II supernovae, this takes about a week.

So what are astronomers to make of supernova 2008iy that had an unprecedented rise time of at least 400 days?

From the time it was discovered, SN 2008iy was an oddball. When its spectra was analyzed, it was placed in the rare IIn subclass. This subclass is reserved for supernovae that feature narrow emission lines. Most supernovae have broad emission lines, if they even have emission lines at all.

To learn more about the history of this unusual case, astronomers at the University of California, Berkeley turned to archival images from the Palomar Quest survey. They searched images of the region to trace back the supernova as far as July of 2007, before which, the star was too faint to appear in images. Thus, the supernova brightening started at least that early and continued until late October of 2008 giving it a rise time at least four times as long as any previously discovered supernova.

The main clue to explain this mystery stemmed from the unusual emission lines. Generally, stars and supernovae are characterized by their absorption spectra which are caused when relatively cool gas stands between a hotter source and our detection. To generate emission lines, there must been a relatively dense medium being excited by the supernova. Furthermore, the fact that the lines were narrow implied that it was fairly motionless.

Together, this pointed to the progenitor undergoing a heightened period of mass loss prior to the detonation. The idea is such that the progenitor had shed large amounts of material. When the supernova occurred, this shell initially obscured the event. But as the ejecta from the supernova overtook the relatively stationary earlier shells, the brighter material slowly seeped out giving rise to the 400 day rise time.

While all stars undergo a period of mass loss in their post main sequence life, such a dense shell would be uncommon. To explain this, the authors turned to a type of star known as a Luminous Blue Variable. These stars are typically near the theoretical limit for the mass of a star (150 times the mass of the sun). Due to their extreme mass, they have strong stellar winds which periodically blow off large amounts of material that could create shells similar to those necessary for SN 2008iy. Unfortunately, this event was so distant that it could not be resolved to search for such a nebula. Even the host galaxy proved difficult to distinguish due to its faintness, although it is believed to be an irregular dwarf galaxy. Eta Carinae is one such luminous blue variable star. If perhaps one day soon it decides to turn into a supernova, it too will unfold in slow-motion.

Comets Posing as Asteroids (or is the the other way around?)

Images of known MBCs from UH 2.2-meter telescope data. Credit: Henry Hsieh


Asteroids are rocky bodies which belong between Mars and Jupiter. Comets are icy bodies that belong way out beyond Pluto. So what are comet-like objects doing in the asteroid belt?

On the night of August 7, 1996, astronomers Eric Elst and Guido Pizarro were observing what was previously thought to be an ordinary asteroid. To their surprise, the object revealed a faint but distinct tail similar to that of a comet. Initially, this was written off as a minor impact kicking up a debris cloud, but when the tail returned in 2002, when the supposed asteroid again returned to perihelion (the closest approach to the Sun), it once again displayed a tenuous tail. The “asteroid” was then given the designation of 133P/Elst-Pizarro. In 2005, two new asteroids were discovered to sport tails: P/2005 U1 and 118401. In 2008, yet another one of these odd objects was found (P/2008 R1). This new class of objects has been dubbed “Main Belt Comets (MBCs)”.

So where are these objects coming from?

A previous article here on Universe Today explored the possibility that these objects formed like other asteroids in the main belt. After all, each of the objects has an orbit consistent with other apparently normal asteroids. They have a similar distance at with they orbit the Sun, as well as similar eccentricities and inclinations of their orbit. So trying to explain these objects as having origins in the outer solar system that migrated just right into the asteroid belt seemed like little more than special pleading.

Furthermore, a 2008 study by Schorghofer at the University of Hawaii predicted that, if such an icy body were to form, it would be able to avoid sublimation for several billion years if only it were covered with a few meters of dust and dirt thus negating the problems of these objects suffering an early death. (Keep in mind that, much like a melting snowball, the water will evaporate but the dirt won’t, so the dirt will pile up quickly on the surface making this entirely plausible!) However, if the ice were covered by such an amount of dust, it would take a collision to remove the dust and trigger the cometary appearance.

In a recent paper, Nader Haghighipour also at the University of Hawaii explores the viability of collisions to trigger this activation as well as the stability of the orbits of these objects to assess the expectation that they were formed at the same time as other asteroids in the main belt.

For the orbital range in which three of the MBCs lie, it was predicted that “on average, one m[eter]-sized object collides … every 40,000 years.” They stress this is an upper limit since their simulation did not include other, nearby asteroids which would likely deplete the number of available impactors.

When they explored the orbital stability of these objects, the discovered at least two of them were dynamically unstable and would eventually be ejected from their orbits on a timescale of 20 million years. As such, it would be unreasonable to expect such objects to have lasted for the nearly 5 billion year history of the solar system. Thus, an in-situ formation was ruled out. However, due to a similarity in orbital characteristics to a family of asteroids known as the Themis family, suggesting they may have resulted from the same break up of a larger body that created this group. This begs the question of whether or not more of these asteroids are secretly hiding water ice reservoirs and are just waiting for an impact to expose them.

Distinctly separate from this orbital family was P/2008 R1 which exists in an especially unstable orbit near one of the resonances from Jupiter. This suggests that this MBC was likely scattered to its present location, but from where remains to be determined.

So while such Main Belt Comets may not have formed simply as they are now, they are likely to be in orbits not far removed from their original formation. Also, this work supported the earlier notion that minor impacts could reliably expected to expose ice allowing for the cometary tails. Whether or not more asteroids have tails tucked between their legs will be the target of future exploration.

Haghighipour’s Paper

Jupiter – Our Silent Guardian?

Jupiter photo. Image credit: NASA/SSI


We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. In Phil Plait’s Death From the Skies, he lays out the dangers of a massive impact: destructive shockwaves, tsunamis, flash fires, atmospheric darkening…. The scenario isn’t pretty should a big one come our way. Fortunately, we may have a silent guardian: Jupiter.

Although many astronomers have assumed that Jupiter would likely sweep out dangerous interlopers (an important feat if we want life to gain a toehold), little work has been done to actually test the idea. To explore the hypothesis, a recent series of papers by J. Horner and B. W. Jones explores the effects of Jupiter’s gravitational pull on three different types of objects: main belt asteroids (which orbit between Mars and Jupiter), short period comets, and in their newest publication, submitted to the International Journal of Astrobiology, the Oort cloud comets (long period comets with the most distant part of their orbits far out in the solar system). In each paper, they simulated the primitive solar systems with the bodies in question with an Earth like planet, and gas giants of varying masses to determine the effect on the impact rate.

Somewhat surprisingly, for main belt asteroids, they determined, “that the notion that any ‘Jupiter’ would provide more shielding than no ‘Jupiter’ at all is incorrect.” Even without the simulation, the astronomers say that this should be expected and explain it by noting that, although Jupiter may shepherd some asteroids, it is also the main gravitational force perturbing their orbits and causing them to move into the inner solar system, where they may collide with Earth.

Contrary to the popular wisdom (which expected that the more massive the planet, the better it would shield us), there were notably fewer asteroids pushed into our line of sight for lower masses of the test Jupiter. Also surprisingly, they found that the most dangerous scenario was an instance in which the test Jupiter had 20% in which the planet “is massive enough to efficiently inject objects to Earth-crossing orbits.” However, they note that this 20% mass is dependent on how they chose to model the primordial asteroid belt and would likely change had they chosen a different model.

When the simulation was redone for for short period comets, they again found that, although Jupiter (and the other gas giants) may be effective at removing these dangerous objects, quite often they did so by sending them our way. As such, they again concluded that, as with asteroids, Jupiter’s gravitational jiggling was more dangerous than it was helpful.

Their most recent treatise explored Oort cloud objects. These objects are generally considered the largest potential threat since they normally reside so far out in the solar system’s gravitational well and thus, will have a greater distance to fall in and pick up momentum. From this situation, the researchers determined that the more massive the planet in Jupiter’s orbit, the better it does protect us from Oort cloud comets. The attribute this to the fact that these objects are initially so far from the Sun, that they are scarcely bound to the solar system. Even a little bit of extra momentum gained if they swing by Jupiter will likely be sufficient to eject them from the solar system all together, preventing them from settling into a closed orbit that would endanger the Earth every time it passed.

So whether or not Jupiter truly defends us or surreptitiously nudges danger our way depends on the type of object. For asteroids and short period comets, Jupiter’s gravitational agitation shoves more our direction, but for the ones that would potentially hurt is the most, the long period comets, Jupiter does provide some relief.