Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Free floating planets might outnumber the stars in the Galaxy

A recent gravitational microlensing survey indicates that there may be twice as many free floating planets in our Galaxy than stars. Gravitational microlensing is the brightening that occurs when a dim but massive object passes along the line of sight to a more distant brighter object. According to Einstein's theory of relativity, mass bends spacetime, so the path followed by a light ray is deflected (ie lensed) if passing near enough to a star or a planet. So an astronomer observing a lensed star will see it brighten for a month or two if a very dim star (such as a white dwarf or neutron star) passes near the line of sight (LOS). This also occurs if a planet passes near the LOS, but the lower mass planet has a smaller gravitational influence, so the lensing event is briefer, only a few days.

This is illustrated in the above figure, which shows an otherwise steady star brightening by 40% during three days. These planetary microlensing events are quite rare, so astronomers must continuously monitor millions of stars just to detect 10 such microlensing events in one year. From the observed frequency of these microlensing events, it can be shown that most of the lensing objects are free-floating Jupiter-mass planets that are not bound to any star. But this unusual finding is consistent with some models of planet formation, which predict that when multiple planets form around a star, the planets' gravitational interactions can eject one or more planets from the system. Those ejected bodies are free-floating planets, and their fate is to roam the Galaxy unseen, except in these microlensing surveys. These results were obtained by astrophysicists T. Sumi and K. Kamiya (Osaka Japan) and others, with further details reported in their preprint.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Propellers and wakes in Saturn's rings

This figure shows results from an Nbody simulation of a small patch in Saturn's rings; click figure to zoom in. Small dots represent meter sized ring particles, while the circle at the center is a 150m moonlet that is embedded in the ring. All bodies are travelling to the right as they orbit Saturn, but keep in mind that those nearer Saturn (which is far downwards in this figure) orbit faster, so ring particles in the lower x<0 half of this figure are drifting towards the right side of the moonlight, while those in the upper x>0 half are drifting left of the moonlet. This Nbody simulation was performed by Shugo Michikoshi and Eiichiro Kokubo, and their results are detailed in this preprint.

The upper figure shows what happens in a low mass ring having a surface density of 60 grams/cm^2. As particles drift past the moonlet they receive a kick due to the moonlet's gravity, which in turn opens a propeller-shaped gap in the ring. The Cassini spacecraft has in fact observed many such propellers orbiting in Saturn's A ring, like the one seen below; see the CICLOPS website for more details about this image. Curiously, the model predicts that the propeller should appear as a dark gap in the ring, while the Cassini image below shows that a propeller is bright. The meaning of this is unclear, but it may indicate that the propeller gap is also filled with sunlight-reflecting dust grains that are produced as ring particles collide near the moonlet.

The lower Nbody simulation (in the lower half of the top graphic) shows results for a high mass ring of surface density 400 grams/cm^2. In this case, the higher ring gravity cause the ring particles to condense into ropy or taffy-like structures that are known as wakes. These wakes dominate the ring's appearance and completely wash-out the propeller that the moonlet is trying to form. The fact that propellers are seen in Saturn's A ring, while none have been observed in Saturn's B ring, suggest that the A ring is a relatively low mass ring that allows moonlets to form propellers, while the B ring is massive and full of gravitating wakes that inhibit any such propellers.