In October 2021, NASA launched its ambitious Lucy mission. Its targets are asteroids, two in the main belt and eight Jupiter trojans, which orbit the Sun in the same path as Jupiter. The mission is named after early hominin fossils (Australopithecus afarensis,) and the name pays homage to the idea that asteroids are fossils from the Solar System’s early days of planet formation.
Visiting ten asteroids in one mission is the definition of ambitious, and now NASA is adding an eleventh.
Trojan asteroids are a fascinating thing. Whereas the most widely known are those that orbit Jupiter (around its L4 and L5 Lagrange Points), Venus, Earth, Mars, Uranus and Neptune have populations of these asteroids as well. Naturally, these rocky objects are a focal point for a lot of scientific research, since they can tell us much about the formation and early history of the Solar System.
And now, thanks to an international team of astronomers, it has been determined that the Trojan asteroids that orbit Mars are likely the remains of a mini-planet that was destroyed by a collision billions of years ago. Their findings are detailed in a paper that will be published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society later this month.
Specifically, they examined two members of the Eureka family – a group of Martian Trojans located at the planet’s L5 point. It is here that eight of Mars’ nine known Trojans exist in stable orbits (the other being at L4), and which are named after the first Martian Trojan ever discovered – 5261 Eureka. Like all Trojans, the Eurekas are thought to have orbited Mars ever since the formation of the Solar System.
In fact, astronomers have suspected for some time that the Martian Trojans could be the survivors of an early generation of planetesimals from which the inner Solar System formed. As Dr. Christou told Universe Today via email:
“[The Trojan family] is unique in the Solar System, in more ways than one. Unlike every other family that exists in the Main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter, it is made up of olivine-rich asteroids. Also, the asteroids are < 2km across, much smaller than we can see at other families, basically because they are much closer to the Earth than other asteroids. Finally, it is the closest family we know to the Sun, and this has implications on how it formed in that the tiny but continuous action of sunlight may have played a role.”
After combining spectrographic and photometric data on these asteroids, the team found that they were rich in the mineral olivine – a magnesium iron silicate that is a primary component of the Earth’s mantle and (it is believed) other terrestrial planets. This was unusual find as far as asteroids go, but it was even more interesting when compared to 5261 Eureka itself – which also has an olivine-rich composition.
Given that the Eureka asteroids also have similar orbits, the team concluded that every member of this family is likely to have a common composition – and hence, a common origin. These findings could have drastic implications for both the origin of Martian Trojans, and the origin of the inner Solar System. As Dr. Christou explained:
“The presence of asteroids with exposed olivine on their surfaces constrains the sequence of events that led to Mars’ formation. Olivine forms within objects that grew large enough to differentiate into a crust, mantle and core. Therefore, these objects must have formed before Mars did and were available to participate in Mars’ formation. To expose the olivine, it is necessary to break these objects up through collisions. Our ongoing work indicates that this is unlikely to have happened after the Solar System settled down in its current configuration, therefore there must have been period of intense collisional evolution during the planet formation process.”
In other words, if Mars formed from several types of material that was mixed together, these asteroids would be samples of the original source – i.e. planetesimals. By examining these asteroids further, scientists will be able to learn more about the process through which Mars came to be and (as Christou says) help us “unscramble the Martian omelette.”
This research is also likely to reveal much about the formation of Earth and the other terrestrial planets of the Solar System. Similar efforts will be made with NASA’s upcoming Lucy mission, which is scheduled to launch in October of 2021. Between 2027 and 2033, this probe will study Jupiter’s Trojan population, obtaining information on six of the asteroid’s geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities to learn more about their origins.
What’s new in the outer reaches of our solar system? Try the discovery of a Trojan asteroid orbiting Uranus. While a plethora of puns exist for this simple fact, the reality check is that this means there are far more of these objects out there than astronomers expected. The new Trojan even has a name – 2011 QF99!
A Trojan asteroid is a transient space rock which is temporarily captured by the gravity of a giant planet. It shares the planet’s orbital path, locked into a specific position known as a Lagrange point. What makes 2011 QF99 unusual is its presence in the outer solar system. Researchers found the scenario a bit unlikely. Why? The answer is simply because of planet size. According to theory, the strong gravitational pull of the larger neighboring planets should have destabilized any captured asteroid’s orbit and shot Uranian Trojans out of the neighborhood long ago.
So just how did this 60 kilometer-wide conglomeration of ice and rock end up circling Uranus? Astronomers turned towards computer modeling for the answer. The research team, including UBC astronomers Brett Gladman, Sarah Greenstreet and colleagues at the National Research Council of Canada and Observatoire de Besancon in France, did a simulation of the solar system and its co-orbital objects – including Trojan asteroids. A short-term animation showing the motion of 2011 QF99, as seen from above the north pole of the solar system can be found here.
“Surprisingly, our model predicts that at any given time three percent of scattered objects between Jupiter and Neptune should be co-orbitals of Uranus or Neptune,” says Mike Alexandersen, lead author of the study to be published tomorrow in the journal Science.
Until now, no one had made any estimates on the percentage of possible outer solar system Trojans. Unexpectedly, the amount ended up being far greater than earlier estimates. Just over the last 10 years, several temporary Trojans and co-orbitals have been cataloged and 2011 QF99 is one of them. It made its home around Uranus within the last few hundred thousand years and will eventually – in about a million years – escape Uranus’ gravity.
“This tells us something about the current evolution of the solar system,” says Alexandersen. “By studying the process by which Trojans become temporarily captured, one can better understand how objects migrate into the planetary region of the solar system.”