Neptune Emptied the Kuiper Belts

Image credit: NASA

Researchers from the Southwest Research Institute believe they have a theory that could help explain why there are so few objects in the Kuiper belt – a band of objects outside the orbit of Neptune. According to theories of how planetary systems form, there should be 100 times more material in the Kuiper belt than astronomers have observed. The researchers believe that the gas giants, including Neptune, formed closer to the Sun, and have slowly drifted further out over time. As Neptune migrated out, it could have pushed the Kuiper objects out of the solar system.

A new study by researchers at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) and the Observatoire de la C?te d’Azur provides an explanation for one of the more mysterious aspects of the population of objects beyond Neptune. In doing so, it provides a unique glimpse into the proto-planetary disk from which the Solar System’s planets formed. Results will be published in the November 27 issue of Nature.

The Kuiper belt is a region of the Solar System that extends outward from Neptune’s orbit, containing billions of icy objects from kilometers to thousands of kilometers across. It was discovered in 1992 and, since that time nearly 1,000 objects have been cataloged. Some of these objects are very large – the largest having a diameter of more than 1,000 kilometers.

As astronomers have studied this structure, a mystery has unfolded. Like most of the planets in the Solar System, the large Kuiper belt objects are believed to have been formed from smaller objects that stuck together when they collided. For this process to have worked in the distant regions beyond Neptune, the Kuiper belt would have to contain more than 10 times the amount of material than is in the Earth. However, telescopic surveys of this region show that it currently contains roughly one-tenth the mass of the Earth, or less.

To solve the puzzle, researchers have been searching for several years for a way to remove more than 99 percent of the Kuiper belt’s material. However, Dr. Harold Levison (SwRI) and Dr. Alessandro Morbidelli (Observatoire de la C?te d’Azur of Nice, France) describe in their article, “Forming the Kuiper Belt by the Outerward Transport of Objects During Neptune’s Migration,” that the Kuiper belt may not have lost much mass at all.

“The mass depletion problem has been sticking in our throat for some time,” says Levison, a staff scientist in the SwRI Space Studies Department. “It looks like we may finally have a possible answer.”

Levison and Morbidelli argue that the proto-planetary disk from which the planets, asteroids and comets all formed had a heretofore unanticipated edge at the current location of Neptune, which is at 30 astronomical units (AU, the average distance between the Sun and Earth), and that the region now occupied by the Kuiper belt was empty. All the Kuiper belt objects we see beyond Neptune formed much closer to the Sun and were transported outward during the final stages of planet formation.

Researchers have known for 20 years that the orbits of the giant planets moved around as they formed. In particular, Uranus and Neptune formed closer to the Sun and migrated outward. Levison and Morbidelli show that Neptune could have pushed all the observed Kuiper belt objects outward as it migrated.

“We really didn’t solve the mass depletion problem, we circumvented it,” says Levison. “According to our work, the void beyond Neptune was probably devoid of objects.”

However, in this model, the region interior to 30 AU contained enough material for the Kuiper belt objects to form. The mechanisms employed by Neptune to push out the Kuiper belt only affected a small fraction of the objects. These became the objects seen by astronomers; the rest were scattered out of the Solar System by Neptune. This new theory explains many of the observable features of the outer Solar System, including the characteristics of the orbits of the Kuiper belt objects and the location of Neptune.

“One of the puzzling aspects of Neptune’s migration is why it stopped where it did,” says Morbidelli. “Our new model explains this as well. Neptune migrated until it hit the edge of the proto-planetary disk, at which point it abruptly stopped.”

NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris funded this research.

Original Source: SwRI News Release

Three new moons discovered for Neptune

Image credit: NASA

A team of astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have discovered three previously unknown moons orbiting the planet Neptune. Since they’re only 30-40km across, the moons were a challenge to spot. The team had to digitally merge multiple exposures of the planet moving across a background of stars. Over time, the planets and their motions were picked up as points of light. This brings the gas giant’s total to 11 known moons.

A team of astronomers led by Matthew Holman (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) and JJ Kavelaars (National Research Council of Canada) has discovered three previously unknown moons of Neptune. This boosts the number of known satellites of the gas giant to eleven. These moons are the first to be discovered orbiting Neptune since the Voyager II flyby in 1989, and the first discovered from a ground-based telescope since 1949.

It now appears that each giant planet’s irregular satellite population is the result of an ancient collision between a former moon and a passing comet or asteroid. “These collisional encounters result in the ejection of parts of the original parent moon and the production of families of satellites. Those families are exactly what we’re finding,” said Kavelaars.

The team that discovered these new satellites of Neptune includes Holman and Kavelaars, graduate student Tommy Grav (University of Oslo & Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), and undergraduate students Wesley Fraser and Dan Milisavljevic (McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada).

Needle in a Haystack

The new satellites were a challenge to detect because they are only about 30-40 kilometers (18-24 miles) in size. Their small size and distance from the Sun prevent the satellites from shining any brighter than 25th magnitude, about 100 million times fainter than can be seen with the unaided eye.

To locate these new moons, Holman and Kavelaars utilized an innovative technique. Using the 4.0-meter Blanco telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, Chile, and the 3.6-meter Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, Hawaii, they took multiple exposures of the sky surrounding the planet Neptune. After digitally tracking the motion of the planet as it moved across the sky, they then added many frames together to boost the signal of any faint objects. Since they tracked the planet’s motion, stars showed up in the final combined image as streaks of light, while the moons accompanying the planet appeared as points of light.

Prior to this find, two irregular satellites and six regular satellites of Neptune were known. The two irregular satellites are Triton, discovered in 1846 by William Lassell, and Nereid, discovered in 1949 by Gerard Kuiper. Triton is considered irregular because it orbits the planet in a direction opposite to the planet’s rotation, indicating that Triton is likely a captured Kuiper Belt Object. (The Kuiper Belt is a disk-shaped collection of icy objects that circle the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune.) Nereid is considered irregular because it has a highly elliptical orbit around Neptune. In fact, its orbit is the most elliptical of any satellite in the solar system. Many scientists believe that Nereid once was a regular satellite whose orbit was disrupted when Triton was gravitationally captured. The six regular satellites were discovered by the Voyager probe during its encounter with Neptune. The three new satellites were missed by Voyager II because of their faintness and great distance from Neptune. According to Holman, “The discovery of these moons has opened a window through which we can observe the conditions in the solar system at the time the planets were forming.”

Tracking Faint Blips

The researchers are currently conducting follow-up observations to better define the orbits of the newfound moons using orbital predictions supplied by Brian Marsden (Director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Mass.) and Robert Jacobson (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).

To follow up the initial find, team members Brett Gladman (University of British Columbia, Canada); Jean-Marc Petit, Philippe Rousselot, and Olivier Mousis (Observatoire de Besancon, France); and Philip Nicholson and Valerio Carruba (Cornell University) conducted additional observations using the Hale 5-meter telescope on Mount Palomar and one of the four 8.2-meter telescopes of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope at Paranal Observatory, Chile. Grav made additional tracking observations using the 2.6-meter Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma, Spain.

Holman says, “Tracking these moons is an enormous, international undertaking involving the efforts of many people. Without teamwork, such faint objects could be easily lost.”

Based in La Serena, Chile, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope is operated by the CFHT Corporation under a joint agreement between the National Research Council of Canada, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique of France, and the University of Hawaii.

The European Southern Observatory is an intergovernmental, European organization for astronomical research. It has ten member countries. ESO operates astronomical observatories in Chile and has its headquarters in Garching, near Munich, Germany.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists organized into six research divisions study the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of the universe.

Original Source: CfA News Release

Neptune Has a Trojan

Astronomers have discovered a new object which shares a very similar orbit with Neptune. Part of a classification of objects called Trojans, 2001 QR322 is 230 km across and requires 166 years to orbit the Sun. Although clusters of Trojans have been found following Jupiter’s orbit, none have ever been found to share an orbit with any other giant planet; although, they’ve been predicted for years.