TERRAPUB Monographs on Environment, Earth and Planets


Monogr. Environ. Earth Planets, Vol. 1 (No. 3), pp. 121-186, 2012 doi:10.5047/meep.2012.00103.0121 ISSN: 2186-4853

Trans-Neptunian Objects as Natural Probes to the Unknown Solar System

Patryk Sofia Lykawka

Astronomy Group, Faculty of Social and Natural Sciences, Kinki University, Shinkamikosaka 228-3, Higashiosaka-shi, Osaka 577-0813, Japan

(Received November 19, 2011; Revised November 14, 2012; Accepted November 15, 2012; Online published December 28, 2012)

Citation: Lykawka, P. S. (2012), Trans-Neptunian objects as natural probes to the unknown solar system, Monogr. Environ. Earth Planets, 1, 121-186, doi:10.5047/meep.2012.00103.0121.

Abstract: Trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) are icy/rocky bodies that move beyond the orbit of Neptune in a region known as the trans-Neptunian belt (or Edgeworth-Kuiper belt). TNOs are believed to be the remnants of a collisionally, dynamically and chemically evolved protoplanetary disk composed of billions of planetesimals, the building blocks from which the planets formed during the early solar system. Consequently, the study of the physical and dynamical properties of TNOs can reveal important clues about the properties of that disk, planet formation, and other evolutionary processes that likely occurred over the last 4.5 Gyr. In contrast to the predictions of accretion models that feature protoplanetary disk planetesimals evolving on dynamically cold orbits (with both very small eccentricities, e, and inclinations, i), in reality TNOs exhibit surprisingly wide ranges of orbital eccentricities and inclinations, from nearly circular to very eccentric orbits (putting some objects at aphelia beyond 1000 AU!) and ranging up to ∼50 deg of inclination with respect to the fundamental plane of the solar system. We can group TNOs into several distinct dynamical classes: (1) Resonant: TNOs currently locked in external Neptunian mean motion resonances; (2) Classical: non-resonant TNOs concentrated with semimajor axes in the range 37 < a < 45–50 AU on relatively stable orbits (which typically feature only minor orbital changes over time); (3) Scattered: TNOs on orbits that suffer(ed) notable gravitational perturbations by Neptune, yielding macroscopic orbital changes over time; (4) Detached: TNOs typically possessing perihelia, q > 40 AU, a > 45–50 AU and orbits stable over the age of the solar system. Several theoretical models have addressed the origin and orbital evolution of the main dynamical classes of TNOs, but none have successfully reproduced them all. In addition, none have explained several objects on peculiar orbits, or provided insightful predictions, without which a model cannot be tested properly against observations. Based on extensive simulations of planetesimal disks with the presence of the four giant planets and huge numbers of modeled planetesimals (reaching up to a million test particles or several thousand massive objects), I explore in detail the dynamics of the TNOs, in particular their (un)stable regions over timescales comparable to the age of the solar system, and the role of resonances across the entire trans-Neptunian region. I also propose that, along with the orbital history of the giant planets, the orbital evolution of primordial embryos (massive planetesimals comparable to Mars-Earth masses) can explain the fine orbital structure of the trans-Neptunian belt, the orbits of Jovian and Neptunian Trojans (objects moving about the L4/L5 Lagrange points of Jupiter and Neptune, respectively), and possibly the current orbits of the giant planets. Those primordial embryos were ultimately scattered by the giant planets, a process that stirred both the orbits of the giant planets and the primordial planetesimal disk to the levels observed at 40–50 AU. In particular, the main constraints provided by the trans-Neptunian belt are optimally satisfied if at least one such primordial embryo (planetoid) survived in the outskirts of the solar system. Therefore, a model with a hypothesized resident planetoid yields results that fit the identified main dynamical classes of TNOs, including those objects on unusual orbits within each class.

Keywords: Solar system, Planets, Minor bodies, Asteroids, Comets, Resonances, Celestial mechanics, N-body simulations.

Corresponding author e-mail: patryksan@gmail.com


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