Tag Archives: Small Satellites

Playing Marbles at Pluto. Looking at the Dynamic Dust Environment. Generators, Sweepers, and Sweet-Spots.

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From the July 24, 2013 morning session at the Pluto Science Conference.

Simon Porter (Lowell Observatory) began this morning’s session with “Ejecta Transfer within the Pluto System.” He asked, “Where does the short lived dust go?” Having small satellites is not unusual in the solar system. Both Jupiter & Saturn have low number-density rings formed from short-lived dust particles ejected from small satellites.

Their Hypothesis: Dust ejected from the small satellites is swept up by Pluto and Charon.  Their Experiment: Simulate dust trajectories in a computer (N-body computation) starting randomly in the system (but constrained within the orbits of the small satellites) and map where they impact Pluto & Charon. Repeat this 10,000 times for a combination of parameters. Their Results: Dust particles do hit all the bodies in the Pluto System. For the Charon impacts, smaller particles survive longer, and those that hit Charon tend to have speeds around 50 m/s (like fastball pitcher). If a particle were to hit Pluto, it would be happen with speeds in the 50-200 m/s range and occur much quicker (due to the fact that Pluto has a larger gravity mass than Charon). They found that lower speed particles would hit the Pluto’s trailing side, whereas the higher speed particles hit the Pluto’s leading side. They also found a slight northern preference for smaller particles due to radiation pressure. And they made an intriguing observation that the impacts they computed correlate well to bright albedo areas (high reflectivity) on the Pluto surface. Coincidence?

Implications for New Horizons. New Horizons will provide datasets from the Student Dust Counter instrument, plus updated albedo maps from image data, to test their computational model.

David Kaufman (SwRI) next talked about “Dynamical Simulations of the Debris Disk Dust Environment of the Pluto System.” He was interested in modeling where debris dust would exist in the Pluto System. The motivation was to evaluate the probability of whether New Horizons would encounter a large enough dust particle that could be catastrophic for the spacecraft. He described the dynamics: the Pluto System can be approximated by a “circular restricted three-body (Pluto-Charon-particle) problem,” but it’s far from simply three bodies. There are features such as the Charon Instability Strip, where the moon Charon sweeps away material. The Lagrange points are unstable.  And the outer moon can significantly perturb (change) trajectories that cross their orbits. He mentioned that “unusual type orbits” can be sustained by the unique gravity and motion characteristics of the Pluto System. He’s done numerical simulations following the particles, governed by physics principles for the system, over a time period of 500 years, and derived that the debris disk is an expended three-dimensional and stable. The inner debris disk recreated the instability strip.

Silvia Giuliatti Winter (UNESP, Brazil) talked about  “The Dynamics of Dust Particles in the Pluto-Charon System.” She is interested in the orbital evolution of small particles ejected form the surface of Nix and Hydra and what happens to them when dust particles from interplanetary meteoroids impact these satellites.  The goal is to place constraints on predictions for a ring in the Pluto System. They model 1 micron and 5-10 micron “dust particles” and track where they travel.

Conclusions: Particles released from the surfaces of Nix and Hydra temporarily form a ring. Collisions with the massive bodies remove 30% of the 1micron size particles in 1 year. The ring that was formed is very faint (optical depth tau=4×10-11).

Implications for New Horizons: For such a faint disk, it will be a challenge for New Horizons to detect. However, if there is forward scattering it could be bright enough to be detected. (The models provided did not include a phase function, that is, a geometric indication of where the sun-light could illuminate the particles).

What’s optical depth? Optical depth is a measure of transparency. If the optical depth is large (tau >> 1), we say the region is optically thick — light is readily absorbed. If the optical depth is small (tau << 1), the region is  optically thin, and light passes through easily.

Othon Winter (UNESP Brazil) spoke about “On the Relevance of the Sailboat Island for the New Horizons Mission.” In investigating where particles would find stable orbits, their modeling predicted a region where there was a cluster of orbits characterized by high eccentricity (e= 0.2 to 0.8) and located around 0.6 Pluto-Charon semi-major axis (i.e. between Pluto and Charon). They nicknamed it “Sailboat Island’ because on a eccentricity vs. distance from Pluto plot it looked like a sailboat. This population of “stable orbits” had not been predicted from previous work.S type OrbitsThe figure above is taken from Giuliatti Winter et al 2010 where they describe a family orbits called S-type that are stable. The plots are in d vs. e. where d, on the x axis is the Pluto-centric semi-major axis (how far from the Pluto barycenter) and e, on the y axis is the eccentricity. The “white” areas are orbit solution that were found to be stable. Area ‘1’ is the “Sailboat Island” described in the talk. Left are prograde (inclination=0) orbits, right are retrograde (inclination=180 degrees) orbits.


Example of a particular family of orbits from the “Sailboat Island” parameter space in the full-family of stable orbits.

Implications for New Horizons: Opportunity for discovery to look for these objects in the Pluto-Charon system.

Andrew Poppe (UC Berkeley) on “Interplanetary dust influx to the Pluto System: Implications for the Dusty Exosphere and Ring Production.” The three previous talks addressed what happened to particles in the Pluto system with time (i.e., their lifetime, where they impacted objects, what stable orbits they achieved). Here he asked, could the source of the dust come from interplanetary sources? For example, come from the Kuiper Belt being dragged into the Sun.

Pluto EKB Disk

Because Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined but our Solar Systems Kuiper Belt dust disk is mainly in the ecliptic plane and Pluto periodically passes through the thickest part of the dust disk.  (EKB = Edgeworth–Kuiper belt)

Pluto Dust Flux Cycle

Computation of the dust flux (in particles/m2/s) for Pluto over one Pluto orbit. The peaks are when Pluto crosses the ecliptic (expected). New Horizon’s July 2015 Pluto fly-by (shown by the red dashed line) will be close to an ecliptic crossing.

Implications for Rings. They turn their “mass influx models” and do calculations on where rings could form. They predict optical depth tau < 10-7 (in backscatter). They are working to refine their models to include larger grains.

Open questions. We still do not really have a good handle on the amount of dust generated by “the Kuiper Belt residents”. This is an active area of study.

Henry Throop  (SwRI at large) talked about putting “Limits on Pluto’s Ring System from the June 12, 2006, Stellar Occultation.” You can search for rings by direct limited (e.g., using HST) or using stellar occultations.  Direct imaging is 2D but at coarse scales whereas stellar occultation give 1 D cuts at higher spatial resolution. He saw that although the June 12, 2006 occultation event was 61 seconds in duration, about 3 hours of data was taken over the entire event, so he started to look outside the main events in search for rings that would appear as shallower drops in the light curve.

occultation light curve

Three hours of data taken around the June 12, 2006 Pluto occultation even. They did not see any rings or debris with this data set. Looking back at the timing they realized that Nix was just missed by 1000 km or so. So had their been a cosmic coincidence that this occultation caught Nix, Nix would have been discovered 10 years earlier.

Implications for New Horizons. This null results combined with other searchers for rings (e.g. recent HST observations) it put limits on ring detection, but this dataset is the only data set looking for rings at scales < 1500 km, the spatial resolution on HST.

The New Horizons spacecraft on its fly-by through the Pluto system in July 2015 should detect a ring with its Student Dust Counter instrument, if such a ring exists.

Small is the new big. Pluto’s family of small satellites sparks big discussions and new ideas.

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Continuing this series of talks from the Pluto Science Conference being held July 22-26, 2013 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (APL) in Laurel, MD. This blog entry highlights a selection of talks on Small Satellites the afternoon of July 23rd.

Hal Weaver (APL) gave us a hearty introduction to “Pluto’s Small Satellites.” The Pluto system is rich. It has five confirmed moons, Charon (1978), Nix (2005), Hydra (2005), Kerberos (2011, formerly know as P4)  and Styx (2012, formerly known as P5).

Pluto satellite parameters

The Pluto system at a glance. Key top-level parameters of the satellites a=semimajor axis (from the Pluto-Charon barycenter/center of mass) in kilometers, P=orbital period in days. The moons appear to be in orbital resonances Hydra:Kerberos:Nix:Styx:Charon = 6:5:4:3:1.

What about their albedo? Albedo is a measurement of a body’s reflectance, a reflection coefficient, where an albedo equal to 1 is “white” and an albedo equal to 0 is essentially “black” (e.g., dirty snowballs like comet nuclei have albedos ~0.04). It should be noted that albedo values can be functions of color (wavelength of light). We know that Pluto has an albedo ~0.5 and Charon has albedo ~0.35. Regolith exchange and dynamics agreements favor albedo ~0.35 for these small satellites, and assuming that density=1 (icy body).

What are implications of these small satellite discoveries? These questions were posed: (1) Pluto system is highly compact and rich, so are there more satellites not yet discovered? (2) Was there a giant impact origin of Pluto System? (3) Could rings also form? (4) Could other large KBOs have multiple satellites? (We know Haumea has 2 companions. Could there be others?).

What role will New Horizons bring? New Horizons will play a key role for small satellites, measuring their size and their shapes. Note: Additional occultation observations from Earth could reveal additional satellites and also provide measurements of their sizes, but not shapes.

New Horizons best spatial resolution of the small satellites is: 0.46 km/pix (Nix), 1.14 km/pix (Hydra), 3.2 km/pix (Kerberos), and 3.2 km/pix (Styx). Best estimates right now for the sizes of these bodies, assuming albedo 0.35, are Hydra 50 km, Nix 40 km, Kerberos 10 km, Styx 4 km. That translates to roughly ~44, ~37, ~3, and ~1 pixels across Hydra, Nix, Kerberos, and Styx, respectively.

At the time of Kerberos & Styx’ discovery, the New Horizons Mission Ops team had already designed the Pluto science sequence of observations to run aboard the spacecraft.  In the spirit of exploration,  the team had wisely reserved a few TBD (to be determined) observations that they now have placed observations of Kerberos and Styx that fit within the constraints. Firm flexibility at its finest.

Scott Kenyon (Harvard SAO, by phone) “Formation of Pluto’s Low Mass Satellites.” He and his team looked at both the giant impact (Canup) and capture (Roskol) formation paths for Pluto and Charon. They model a debris disk where viscous diffusion expands the disk, collisions circularize the orbits, particles experience migration, and satellites eventually grow. They found that lower mask disks take longer to reach equilibrium, do produce more satellites, and also produce the smaller satellites. Calculations with large seed planetesimals produce less satellites. Calculations also do predict 1-km size objects in large orbits (orbits beyond Hydra) in a diffuse debris disk.

For more details about their paper on the formation of Pluto’s low mass satellites is found here http://arxiv.org/abs/1303.0280.

What role will New Horizons bring? New Horizons can test these predictions if they discover more satellites when they look at the Pluto system on approach and departure.

Peter Thomas (Cornell University) and Keith Noll (NASA GSFC) provided a talk about “Pluto’s Small Satellites: What to Expect, What They Might Tell Us.”

Small satellites of planets: variety and dynamics role. We have a small selection of satellites of 20-100 km range (e.g. Metis, Amalthea, Thebe, Atlas, Prometheus, Pandora, Epimetheus, Janus, Hyperion, Phoebe and asteroids Mathilde, Eros, Ida). Best “comparatives” come from the Saturn family from amazing Cassini images, but these divided into two groups whether they are located within the ring arcs or not. Small satellites are irregular in shape, have high porosity (40-70% void space), weak (tidally fractured), crater morphology varies, regolith depths & distribution over surface, icy & rocky, and some have albedo markings.

Saturns Moons

Saturn’s moons may be useful “comparatives” for describing Pluto’s small satellites.

Predictions for New Horizons. Peter Thomas is excited to see New Horizons’ images of the small satellites. He predicts they will not look like egg-shaped. Thomas’ Best Guess: A Deimos/Hyperion hybrid morphology.

KBOs and their satellites: variety and collision role. There are three multiple systems known in the Kuiper Belt: Pluto (6 components), Haumea (3 components) and 47171 1999 Tc36 (3 components). There are also 74 binary systems to date. The Pluto system is collisional. Unfortunately most of the KBO binaries have too low angular momentum to imply a collisional origin, but there is a subset of TNO binaries that could be a comparative set. Multiple collision systems in the Kuiper Belt could serve as possible analogs of the Pluto system.

Plutino Binaries

Plutino binaries (above) are also “comparatives” images for describing Pluto’s small satellites. Other comparative bodies, which may have collisional origin could be Quaoar, 1998 SM165, Salacia, and Eris.

Predictions for New Horizons. New Horizons will tell us a lot about KBOs and test open theories about their formation and collisional history.

Mark Showalter (SETI) on “Orbits and Physical Properties of Pluto’s Small Moons Kerberos (P4) and Styx (P5)” began with “Well, they are not your typical orbits.” The orbits of all the small satellites do wobble with a periodicity defined by Charon. Essentially the system acts like a “time-variable center gravity field.” There are nine orbital elements to fit (semi major axis, a; mean longitude at epoch, theta; eccentricity, e; longitude of pericenter at epoch, w; inclination I; longitude of ascending node at epoch, Omega; mean motion, n; pericenter precession rate dw/dt; nodal regression rate dOmega/dt.). He provided updated parameters for the moons based on this work.

Mark Showalter (SETI) next talked about his preliminary work on “Chaotic Rotation of Nix & Hydra.” He started the presentation with a light curves for Hydra & Nix made the 2010-2012 HST data sets. They do not follow the expected “double sinusoidal.” When plotting phase angle vs. time, Hydra and Nix do get brighter with lower phase angle and he used this information to normalize their light curves. He found that Nix & Hydra’s brightnesses do not correlate with their projected longitude on the sky. They are probably not in synchronous rotation. Also, he is not finding any single rotation period compatible with the data series he has.

His premise is that Nix and Hydra are not following your typical rotation, and are very heavily influenced by the Charon-wobble. Best Guess: Hydra and Nix are in a state of “tumbling.” Bodies that not synchronous have no way to get to synchronous lock.

Until now, Hyperion (one of Saturn’s moons) had been the only chaotic rotator. Not any more! It’s got company!

Marina Brozovic (JPL) spoke about “The Orbits and Masses of Pluto’s Satellites.” She used Pluto & Charon data from photographic plates (1980s), ground-based VLT AO data (1990-2006) and HST data (1990-2012); Nix and Hydra data from HST and VLT AO (2002-2012); and Kerberos and Styx data from HST (2010-2012) to derive orbital parameters for these bodies. They have created plu041 and plu042 ephemeris solutions (i.e. where all the satellites are in the system with time), the latter where they provide orbit predictions for the four smaller satellites. And, they have found interesting puzzles as they are working to find solutions for the new satellite masses. She presented orbital uncertainties at the time of the New Horizons encounter (July 14, 2015).

Andrew Youdin (JILA, CU Boulder) “Using (the stability of)  Kerberos to Weigh Nix & Hydra.” He looked at what was done on the HR8799 (Skemer et al 2012) exoplanet system, where orbital stability technique was used, and applied it to the Pluto System. Kerberos/P4 does appear more unstable, but Styx/P5 may be more stable. To derive the necessary masses for orbit stability, when compared with measured brightnesses, means comet-like albedos are ruled out for small Pluto satellites. Instead, they would have high albedo, clean-icy surfaces. No dirty snowballs here.

Andrew Youdin’s paper on using the P4 data to help constrain the masses of Nix and Hydra can be found here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1205.5273.

Andrew Youdin

Andrew Youdin at the beginning of his talk called out a visual comparison between the Pluto System (left) and the exoplanet system HR8799 (right) 129 light years away characterized by a debris disk and four massive planets confirmed by direct imaging. It served for his inspiration to apply fitting. techniques to the Pluto System small moons. “Pluto’s not a planet. It’s better. In miniature, it’s the richest circumbinary multiplanet system.”

Alan Stern (SwRI) on “Constraints on Satellites of Pluto Interior to Charon’s Orbit and Prospects for Detection by New Horizons.” Alan Stern asks, “Could there be moons inside Charon’s Orbit?” Charon is a big vacuum cleaner, and clears out a big swatch called the CIS, the Charon Instability Strip, clear down to 0.45-0.47 Pluto-Charon separation. Atmospheric drag by Pluto’s atmosphere could also add in the clearing-out the region. Charon’s eccentricity also constrains the problem. And when you combine the recent HST data detection limits, you only have a region from 0.2 to 0.45-0.47 Pluto-Charon separation (the outer edge of the CIS) where you could possibly have moons.

What role will New Horizons bring? New Horizons will do a deep satellite search with the LORRI instrument at seven days prior to Pluto closest approach. This search will reach 6x fainter than current limits set by HST for Pluto companions, to detect objects down to ~1.2 km. If New Horizons does find satellites within Charon’s orbit this will provide new insights into satellite system origins.

Charon Instability Strip

Charon has been a major player in the determining where debris in the Pluto system could remain stable. The Charon Instability Strip is a region between Pluto and Charon that is kept relatively free because of Charon’s gravity.