Five New Neptunian Trojans Discovered

The Solar System is filled with what are known as Trojan Asteroids – objects that share the orbit of a planet or larger moon. Whereas the best-known Trojans orbit with Jupiter (over 6000), there are also well-known Trojans orbiting within Saturn’s systems of moons, around Earth, Mars, Uranus, and even Neptune.

Until recently, Neptune was thought to have 12 Trojans. But thanks to a new study by an international team of astronomers – led by Hsing-Wen Lin of the National Central University in Taiwan – five new Neptune Trojans (NTs) have been identified. In addition, the new discoveries raise some interesting questions about where Neptune’s Trojans may come from.

For the sake of their study – titled “The Pan-STARRS 1 Discoveries of Five New Neptune Trojans“- the team relied on data obtained by the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). This wide-field imaging facility – which was founded by the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy – has spent the last decade searching the Solar System for asteroids, comets, and Centaurs.

PS1 at dawn. The mountain in the distance is Mauna Kea, about 130 kilometers southeast. Credit: pan-starrs.ifa.hawaii.edu
The PS1 telescope at dawn, with the mountain of Mauna Kea visible in the distance. Credit: pan-starrs.ifa.hawaii.edu

The team used data obtained by the PS-1 survey, which ran from 2010 to 2014 and utilized the first Pan-STARR telescope on Mount Haleakala, Hawaii. From this, they observed seven Trojan asteroids around Neptune, five of which were previously undiscovered. Four of the TNs were observed orbiting within Neptune’s L4 point, and one within its L5 point.

The newly detected objects have sizes ranging from 100 to 200 kilometers in diameter, and in the case of the L4 Trojans, the team concluded from the stability of their orbits that they were likely primordial in origin. Meanwhile, the lone L5 Trojan was more unstable than the other four, which led them to hypothesize that it was a recent addition.

As Professor Lin explained to Universe Today via email:

“The 2 of the 4 currently known L5 Neptune Trojans, included the one L5 we found in this work, are dynamically unstable and should be temporary captured into Trojan cloud. On the other hand, the known L4 Neptune Trojans are all stable. Does that mean the L5 has higher faction of temporary captured Trojans? It could be, but we need more evidence.”

In addition, the results of their simulation survey showed that the newly-discovered NT’s had unexpected orbital inclinations. In previous surveys, NTs typically had high inclinations of over 20 degrees. However, in the PS1 survey, only one of the newly discovered NTs did, whereas the others had average inclinations of about 10 degrees.

Animation showing the path of six of Neptune's L4 trojans in a rotating frame with a period equal to Neptune's orbital period.. Credit: Tony Dunn/Wikipedia Commons
Animation showing the path of six of Neptune’s L4 trojans in a rotating frame with a period equal to Neptune’s orbital period.. Credit: Tony Dunn/Wikipedia Commons

From this, said Lin, they derived two possible explanations:

“The L4 “Trojan Cloud” is wide in orbital inclination space. If it is not as wide as we thought before,  the two observational results are statistically possible to generate from the same intrinsic inclination distribution. The previous study suggested >11 degrees width of inclination, and most likely is ~20 degrees. Our study suggested that it should be 7 to 27 degrees, and the most likely is ~ 10 degrees.”

“[Or], the previous surveys were used larger aperture telescopes and detected fainter NT than we found in PS1. If the fainter (smaller) NTs have wider inclination distribution than the larger ones, which means the smaller NTs are dynamically “hotter” than the larger NTs, the disagreement can be explained.”

According to Lin, this difference is significant because the inclination distribution of NTs is related to their formation mechanism and environment. Those that have low orbital inclinations could have formed at Neptune’s Lagrange Points and eventually grew large enough to become Trojans asteroids.

Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA
Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

On the other hand, wide inclinations would serve as an indication that the Trojans were captured into the Lagrange Points, most likely during Neptune’s planetary migration when it was still young. And as for those that have wide inclinations, the degree to which they are inclined could indicate how and where they would have been captured.

“If the width is ~ 10 degrees,” he said, “the Trojans can be captured from a thin (dynamically cold) planetesimal disk. On the other hand, if the Trojan cloud is very wide (~ 20 degrees), they have to be captured from a  thick (dynamically hot) disk. Therefore, the inclination distribution give us an idea of how early Solar system looks like.”

In the meantime, Li and his research team hope to use the Pan-STARR facility to observe more NTs and hundreds of other Centaurs, Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs) and other distant Solar System objects. In time, they hope that further analysis of other Trojans will shed light on whether there truly are two families of Neptune Trojans.

This was all made possible thanks to the PS1 survey. Unlike most of the deep surveys, which are only ale to observe small areas of the sky, the PS1 is able to monitor the whole visible sky in the Northern Hemisphere, and with considerable depth. Because of this, it is expected to help astronomers spot objects that could teach us a great deal about the history of the early Solar System.

Further Reading: arXiv

Trojans May Yet Rain Down

It would be an interesting survey to catalog the initial reactions readers have to “Trojans”. Do you think first of wooden horses, or do asteroids spring to mind? Given the context of this website, I’d hope it’s the latter. If so, you’re thinking along the right lines. But how much do you really know about astronomical Trojans?

While most frequently used to discuss the set of objects in Jupiter’s orbital path that lie 60º ahead and behind the planet, orbiting the L4 and L5 Lagrange points, the term can be expanded to include any family of objects orbiting these points of relative stability around any other object. While Jupiter’s Trojan family is known to include over 3,000 objects, other solar system objects have been discovered with families of their own. Even one of Saturn’s moons, Tethys, has objects in its Lagrange points (although in this case, the objects are full moons in their own right: Calypso and Telesto).

In the past decade Neptunian Trojans have been discovered. By the end of this summer, six have been confirmed. Yet despite this small sample, these objects have some unexpected properties and may outnumber the number of asteroids in the main belt by an order of magnitude. However, they aren’t permanent and a paper published in the July issue of the International Journal of Astrobiology suggests that these reservoirs may produce many of the short period comets we see and “contribute a significant fraction of the impact hazard to the Earth.”

The origin of short period comets is an unusual one. While the sources of near Earth asteroids and long period comets have been well established, short period comets parent locations have been harder to pin down. Many have orbits with aphelions in the outer solar system, well past Neptune. This led to the independent prediction of a source of bodies in the far reaches by Edgeworth (1943) and Kuiper (1951). Yet others have aphelions well within the solar system. While some of this could be attributed to loss of energy from close passes to planets, it did not sufficiently account for the full number and astronomers began searching for other sources.

In 2006, J. Horner and N. Evans demonstrated the potential for objects from the outer solar system to be captured by the Jovian planets. In that paper, Horner and Evans considered the longevity of the stability of such captures for Jupiter Trojans. The two found that these objects were stable for billions of years but could eventually leak out. This would provide a storing of potential comets to help account for some of the oddities.

However, the Jupiter population is dynamically “cold” and does not contain a large distribution of velocities that would lead to more rapid shedding. Similarly, Saturn’s Trojan family was not found to be excited and was estimated to have a half life of ~2.5 billion years. One of the oddities of the Neptunian Trojans is that those few discovered thus far have tended to have high inclinations. This indicates that this family may be more dynamically excited, or “hotter” than that of other families, leading to a faster rate of shedding. Even with this realization, the full picture may not yet be clear given that searches for Trojans concentrate on the ecliptic and would likely miss additional members at higher inclinations, thus biasing surveys towards lower inclinations.

To assess the dangers of this excited population, Horner teamed with Patryk Lykawka to simulate the Neptunian Trojan system. From it, they estimated the family had a half life of ~550 million years. Objects leaving this population would then undergo several possible fates. In many cases, they resembled the Centaur class of objects with low eccentricities and with perihelion near Jupiter and aphelion near Neptune. Others picked up energy from other gas giants and were ejected from the solar system, and yet others became short period comets with aphelions near Jupiter.

Given the ability for this the Neptunian Trojans to eject members frequently, the two examined how many of the of short period comets we see may be from these reservoirs. Given the unknown nature of how large these stores are, the authors estimated that they could contribute as little as 3%. But if the populations are as large as some estimates have indicated, they would be sufficient to supply the entire collection of short period comets. Undoubtedly, the truth lies somewhere in between, but should it lie towards the upper end, the Neptunian Trojans could supply us with a new comet every 100 years on average.

Where Do Asteroids Come From?

[/caption]Where do asteroids come from? Most of them are grouped in the main belt, but that is not the only asteroid field in the solar system. There are actually four sets of asteroids grouped into different fields: the main belt, Trojans, scattered disc, and the Kuiper belt. To understand where do asteroids come from, you need to know the theory on how they were formed.

Most scientists agree that all of the asteroids are the result of the the big bang. After the initial turmoil, large asteroids collided together and through the process known as accretion planets and dwarf planets were formed. The planets and dwarfs grew large enough to develop gravity and became rounded and able to sustain their own gravity. Asteroids continued to collide and destroy each other until we have the elliptical and other odd shaped, pock-marked solar objects that we have today. Here is a little information to help you understand where do asteroids come from today.

The asteroid field known as the main belt is a large collection of objects that are in orbit between Jupiter and Mars. The largest known asteroid in the belt is Ceres which accounts for 27% of the belts’ total mass. Ceres is also the only asteroid in the belt that is classified as a dwarf planet. Vesta, Hygeia, and Pallas are the other of the four largest bodies in the asteroid field. There have been several space missions that have crossed the field. The asteroids are far enough apart that traversing it is easily done. The Dawn space mission to the next to visit the main belt and will visit two of the largest bodies, hopefully it will be able to help reclassify Vesta as a dwarf planet.

The Kuiper belt is populated with thousands of icy bodies. The only one that is currently designated as a dwarf planet is the former planet Pluto. That may change in the near future since there are at least two bodies in the belt that are larger than Pluto. Our ability to send spacecraft that far out is what is holding us back right now.

The Trojans asteroid field, originally referred to the Trojan asteroids, orbits around Jupiter’s 4th and 5th Lagrangian points. Subsequently objects have been found orbiting the same Lagrangian points of Neptune and Mars. The word Trojan, in astronomy, refers to a natural satellite that shares an orbit with a larger planet or moon, but does not collide with it because it orbits around one of the two Lagrangian points of stability.

The scattered disc asteroid field is a subset of the Kuiper belt. Because their orbits take them well beyond 100AU from the Sun they are the coldest objects in the Solar System. Due to its unstable nature, astronomers now consider the scattered disc to be the place of origin for most periodic comets. Many of the objects in the Oort cloud are thought to have originated in the scattered disc.

Answering the question: ”Where do asteroids come from?” is pretty easy, but it is ambiguous at the same time. What we have are mostly theories and few definite facts. Things get even more blurry as you study different asteroids and find that some from different belts have somehow inter-mixed. Ah, the beauty of astronomy!

There is some good info on the asteroid belt here. NASA has a good piece on KBO’s. Here on Universe Today there is an article on the possibility of an alien asteroid belt and the Milky Ways’ own asteroid belts.

Reference:
Wikipedia