Today we return to celestial mechanics, and I’d like to discuss the background to a paper I’ve written with my Ph.D. supervisor Mark Wyatt that has just been accepted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. In it we investigated one way in which a planet can destabilise nearby bodies in the same planetary system, and the implications of this for estimating the masses of planets in extra-Solar systems. Before describing our work I need to say a little about both the astronomical and mathematical background.
It is clear in our Solar System that planets clear asteroids and comets from orbits that are too close to them. For example, there are no stable populations of bodies (with the exception of the Trojans) between the orbits of Jupiter and Neptune, while inside Jupiter’s orbit and beyond Neptune’s there are stable populations — the Asteroid and Kuiper Belts. While the proximate cause of bodies being removed from the unstable regions is by coming very close to a planet and being scattered onto a very different orbit, the region of space over which this is effective is smaller than the cleared region. Some other dynamical mechanism is at work to move some particles onto orbits where they will encounter a planet, but without moving others.
Similar clearings are seen in the debris discs around other stars. These debris discs are made of the dust formed in collisions between asteroids or comets, and there are many that have been imaged at a variety of wavelengths (see here for a gallery). Many are seen to have holes in the centre; a good example is that around Fomalhaut, which has a very sharp inner edge at around 130AU. Fomalhaut also hosts a planet which has been detected with the Hubble Space Telescope, as seen in the Figure below. The planet’s existence and general properties had been predicted by Alice Quillen (2007), who calculated what the nature of the planet must be in order to account for the shape of the disc edge. The planet was discovered in 2008 by Paul Kalas et al., at a location in very good agreement with the theoretical predictions. (This method of predicting an unknown planet based on the orbits of known bodies has a venerable tradition going back to the discovery of Neptune in the 19th Century.) Indeed, the mass of the planet as estimated by the amount of light received from it is very uncertain, and currently the best estimate of the planet’s mass is from the dynamical models (Chiang et al., 2009).
When material is destabilised and scattered by the planet, it may suffer one of three ultimate fates: collision with the star, collision with the planet, or ejection from the system. This leads to another scenario in which whether material can be destabilised is important: destabilised material colliding with the star has been invoked as an explanation for the unusual compositions of some White Dwarf atmospheres. White Dwarfs are the remnants of low-mass stars at the end of their lives, and their high density (around the mass of the Sun in a volume the size of the Earth) gives them a strong gravitational field at their surface. This gravitational field should act to separate the elements in the atmosphere, so instead of different species being mixed together, as is the case in Earth’s atmosphere, the heavier should sink to the bottom, as sand does in water. Hence, only the lightest elements, hydrogen or helium, should be seen. However, some White Dwarfs show spectroscopic evidence of “pollution” by heavier elements (called metals by astronomers), for which there must be an ongoing source to replace those that are sinking. A leading hypothesis is that they originate from destabilised asteroids or comets that have collided with the star.
We might expect orbits to be less stable around White Dwarfs than around their progenitors. This is becasue, during the giant phases of a star’s evolution that precede the white dwarf phase, the star can lose a significant quantity of its mass—around half, for a star such as the Sun. Therefore, the planets around White Dwarfs are more massive, relative to the star, than when they were around the progenitor. Since most dynamical effects depend on the ratio of planetary to stellar mass, these effects will become stronger as the star loses mass. Hence, unstable regions around planets would be expected to grow. This was something we explored in a paper earlier this year, finding that the amount of material scattered from typical planet–disc systems could broadly acccount for the amount of metal pollution in White Dwarf atmospheres of various ages. If this is the correct explanation, then it is telling us about the long-term fate of planets and asteroids as their stars age and die — including our own.
NB: See this post for definitions of orbital elements.
Although there are several ways by which one or more planets might destabilise other bodies, the one with the widest applicability is the overlap of mean motion resonances. These resonances occur when two bodies’ orbital periods are in a simple integer ratio, such as 2:1. From Kepler’s Law, , this occurs at a ratio of semi-major axes of around 1.6. So if one planet is located at 1AU, a planet at 1.6AU would be at the 2:1 resonance. Resonances with Neptune in the Kuiper Belt are shown schematically here:
Now, although the actual period ratio only occurs at one specific semi-major axis ratio, the resonance also affects nearby orbits. The elements of these orbits oscillate, with a maximum amplitude of oscillation that depends on the mass of the planet and the particular resonance being considered. In particular, the more massive the planet, the more powerful the resonance, and the greater the range of semi-major axes affected by it. If a resonance acts alone on an orbit, the result is a regular oscillation of the orbital elements.
However, since the resonances have a width, and bunch up more closely the closer you are to the planet, there comes a point where the resonances overlap. When this happens, the evolution of an orbit becomes chaotic and unpredictable—crudely, instead of being confined to one resonance, you can imagine the particle being passed amongst many since their regions of oscillation overlap. This overlap of resonances driving chaotic behaviour was described by Chirikov (1979) and applied to the stability of orbits in the Solar System’s Asteroid Belt by Wisdom (1980).
It is useful to have a simple formula to give the boundary of the chaotic region for any planet mass. This Wisdom derived assuming low particle eccentricities, finding , where is the width of the cleared chaotic zone and is the ratio of planet mass to stellar mass. I.e., more massive planets clear out wider regions around their orbit, which is what one intuitively expects. This result is now used to estimate the mass of planets truncating debris discs, since if the planet and disc location are known, one can solve for .
In our previous paper, we had used the Wisdom result to estimate the amount of material that would destabilised as the star loses mass (this changes and so changes the width of the chaotic zone), and compared it to more accurate numerical results using both integrations of the full equations of motion, and a simpler numerical investigation using a dynamical map (described in Duncan, Quinn & Tremaine 1989). We considered a disc in which particles had moderate eccentricities, up to 0.1, since in our Solar System the Kuiper Belt bodies have eccentricities in this range. We found that the chaotic zone width increases with increasing eccentricity—this is also seen in Wisdom’s original paper, although Wisdom’s analytical result was only valid for low eccentricities. In our latest paper, we followed up these investigations, deriving a simple formula for the chaotic zone width at non-zero eccentricity.
In the next post, I’ll describe what exactly we did in our new paper, and the implications for the interactions of planets with planetesimal discs. Concisely, we found that if particles are on eccentric orbits, the width of the chaotic zone is no longer given by the Wisdom (1980) formula, and thus any attempt to estimate a planet mass in the way described above will give an erroneous result.