The possibility of more than one exoplanet sharing the same orbit

PDS 70, as seen by ALMA
The Trojan debris clouds around PDS 70, as seen by ALMA

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have detected evidence that suggests the possibility of more than one exoplanet sharing the same orbit around PDS 70, a star 400 light years away.

This young star is known to host two giant, Jupiter-like planets, PDS 70b and PDS 70c. By analysing archival ALMA observations of this system, the team spotted a cloud of debris at the location in PDS 70b’s orbit where Trojans are expected to exist.

Trojans occupy the so-called Lagrangian zones, two extended regions in a planet’s orbit where the combined gravitational pull of the star and the planet can trap material. Studying these two regions of PDS 70b’s orbit, astronomers detected a faint signal from one of them, indicating that a cloud of debris with a mass up to roughly two times that of our Moon might reside there.

The press release — as well as most news reports — touts the possibility that they have found a second planet in this orbit. They have not, and are likely not going to. As noted above, the data indicates the presence of “a cloud of debris”, which is most likely a clustering of Trojan asteroids, just as the more than 12,000 asteroids we see in the two Trojan points in Jupiter’s orbit.

Nonetheless, this is the first detection of what appears to be a Trojan clustering in the accretion disk of a young star.

Lucy team suspends efforts to complete deployment of unlatched solar panel

Lucy's planned route
Lucy’s planned route to explore the Trojan asteroids

The Lucy science team has decided to suspend its efforts to complete the deployment of the unlatched solar panel that failed to fully open shortly after launch, having determined that little can be accomplished while the spacecraft is so far from the Sun.

A series of activities in 2022 succeeded in further deploying the array, placing it into a tensioned, but unlatched, state. Using engineering models calibrated by spacecraft data, the team estimates that the solar array is over 98% deployed, and it is strong enough to withstand the stresses of Lucy’s 12-year mission. The team’s confidence in the stability of the solar array was affirmed by its behavior during the close flyby of the Earth on Oct. 16, 2022, when the spacecraft flew within 243 miles (392 km) of the Earth, through the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The solar array is producing the expected level of power at the present solar range and is expected to have enough capability to perform the baseline mission with margin.

The team elected to suspend deployment attempts after the attempt on Dec. 13, 2022, produced only small movement in the solar array. Ground-based testing indicated that the deployment attempts were most productive while the spacecraft was warmer, closer to the Sun. As the spacecraft is currently 123 million miles (197 million km) from the Sun (1.3 times farther from the Sun than the Earth) and moving away at 20,000 mph (35,000 km/hr), the team does not expect further deployment attempts to be beneficial under present conditions.

The spacecraft will do another Earth fly-by on December 12, 2024, which will send it to the Trojans on the left side of the map above. Before that Lucy will do a mid-course correction in February 2024, at which time the engineers will reassess whether to try again to latch the panel, when Lucy is closer to Earth and thus also closer to the Sun.

Lucy to fly past Earth on October 16th

Lucy solar panel graphic
Artist’s impression of solar panel

As part of its planned route to get to the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit, the planetary probe Lucy is scheduled to fly only 220 miles above the Earth’s surface on October 16th.

Lucy will be passing the Earth at such a low altitude that the team had to include the effect of atmospheric drag when designing this flyby. Lucy’s large solar arrays increase this effect.

“In the original plan, Lucy was actually going to pass about 30 miles closer to the Earth,” says Rich Burns, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “However, when it became clear that we might have to execute this flyby with one of the solar arrays unlatched, we chose to use a bit of our fuel reserves so that the spacecraft passes the Earth at a slightly higher altitude, reducing the disturbance from the atmospheric drag on the spacecraft’s solar arrays.”

That solar array remains unlatched (as shown in the graphic above), but because it is almost completely deployed and is producing about 90% of its intended electricity, engineers have ceased efforts to complete deployment and latching.

Lucy gets a bonus asteroid during its tour of the Trojans

Lucy's planned journey
Click for full image.

While doing observations in March of one of the eight asteroids the Lucy asteroid will visit in the two Trojan asteroid regions fore and aft of Jupiter, scientists discovered it had a companion, thus increasing the total asteroids to be seen close-up by Lucy to nine.

One of the Trojan asteroids on Lucy’s tour, named Polymele, has a companion. Scientists discovered an apparent satellite of Polymele during a ground-based occultation observation in March, when Polymele briefly passed in front of a star, temporarily blocking its light from reaching Earth. The occultation observations were intended to help the Lucy science team determine the shape of Polymele, which only appears as a point of light in telescope images.

“We got a really nice projected shape of Polymele, and then we were very surprised to detect an object about 200 kilometers (120 miles) away from Polymele,” Levison said last week in a presentation to NASA’s Small Bodies Advisory Group. “It’s 5 kilometers (3 miles) in diameter, and it’s sitting almost exactly in Polymele’s equatorial plane.”

Lucy’s science team has temporarily named the object Shaun, after “Shaun the Sheep” in the show “Wallace and Gromit.”

The graphic above, from the Lucy science team, shows the spacecraft’s planned journey during its mission.

Engineers continue their attempts to fully open one of Lucy’s two solar arrays. On June 9th they successfully used the array’s deployment motors again for a short burst to further open the array. The plan is to repeat these short bursts with the hope the array will eventually latch into its intended open position.

OSIRIS-REx to search for Earth’s Trojan asteroids

As it heads outward for a rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx will turn on its instruments for 12 days in February 2017 to hunt for the Trojan asteroids that likely orbit the Sun in the Earth’s orbit 60 degrees ahead and behind it.

Six planets in our solar system are known to harbor Trojan asteroids — Jupiter, Neptune, Mars, Venus, Uranus and Earth. Although more than 6,000 Trojan asteroids are known to be orbiting along with Jupiter, scientists have discovered only one Earth Trojan to date: 2010 TK7, found by NASA’s NEOWISE project in 2010. Scientists predict that there should be more Trojans orbiting Earth, but these asteroids are difficult to detect because they appear close to the sun from Earth’s point of view. In mid-February 2017, however, the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will be ideally positioned to undertake a survey of the stable point in front of Earth.

Over 12 days, the OSIRIS-REx Earth-Trojan asteroid search will employ the spacecraft’s MapCam imager to methodically scan the space where Earth Trojans are expected to exist. MapCam is part of the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite, or OCAMS, which was designed and built by researchers at the UA’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.