Far out, man

Egg in the UniverseThe thing about Al’s coffee shop is that there’s generally a good discussion going on, usually about current doings in physics or astronomy.  This time it’s in the physicist’s corner but they’re not writing equations on the whiteboard Al put up over there to save on paper napkins.  I step over there and grab an empty chair.

“Hi folks, what’s the fuss about?”

“Hi, Mr Moire, we’re arguing about where the outer edge of the Solar System is.  I said it’s Pluto’s orbit, like we heard in high school — 325 lightminutes from the Sun.”

The looker beside him pipes up.  “Jeremy, that’s just so bogus.”  Kid keeps scoring above his level, don’t know how he does it.  “Pluto doesn’t do a circular orbit, it’s a narrow ellipse so average distance doesn’t count.  Ten percent of the time Pluto’s actually closer to the Sun than Neptune is, and that’s only 250 lightminutes out.”

Then the looker on his other side chimes in.  Doing good, kid.  “How about the Kuiper Belt?  A hundred thousand objects orbiting the Sun out to maybe twice Neptune’s distance, so it’s 500 lightminutes.”

Third looker, across the table.  You rock, Jeremy.  “Hey, don’t forget the Scattered Disk, where the short-period comets drop in from.  That goes out to 100 astronomical units, which’d be … 830 lightminutes.”

One of Cathleen’s Astronomy grad students can’t help diving in despite he’s only standing nearby, not at the table.  “Nah, the edge is at the heliopause.”

<several voices> “The what?”

“You know about the solar wind, right, all the neutral and charged particles that get blown out of the Sun?  Mass-density-wise it’s a near-vacuum, but it’s not nothing.  Neither is the interstellar medium, maybe a few dozen hydrogen and helium atoms per cubic meter but that adds up and they’re not drifting on the same vector the Sun’s using.  The heliopause is the boundary where the two flows collide.  Particles in the solar wind are hot, relatively speaking, compared to the interstellar medium.  Back in 2012, our outbound spacecraft Voyager 1 detected a sharp drop in temperature at 121 astronomical units.  You guys are talking lightminutes so that’d be <thumb-pokes his smartphone> how about that? almost exactly 1000 lightminutes out.  So there’s your edge.”

Now Al’s into it.  “Hold on, how about the Oort Cloud?”

“Mmm, good point.  Like this girl said <she bristles at being called ‘girl’>, the short-period comets are pretty much in the ecliptic plane and probably come in from the Scattered Disk.  But the long-period comets seem to come in from every direction.  That’s why we think the Cloud’s a spherical shell.  Furthermore, the far points of their orbits generally lie in the range between 20,000 and 50,000 au’s, though that outer number’s pretty iffy.  Call the edge at 40,000 au’s <more thumb-poking> that’d be 332,000 lightminutes, or 3.8 lightdays.”

“Nice job, Jim.”  Cathleen speaks up from behind him.  “But let’s think a minute about why that top number’s iffy.”

“Umm, because it’s dark out there and we’ve yet to actually see any of those objects?”

“True.  At 40,000 au’s the light level is 1/40,000² or 1/1,600,000,000 the sunlight intensity we get on Earth.  But there’s another reason.  Maybe that ‘spherical shell’ isn’t really a sphere.”

I have to ask.  “How could it not be?  The Sun’s gravitational field is spherical.”

“Right, but at these distances the Sun’s field is extremely weak.  The inverse-square law works for gravity the same way it does for light, so the strength of the Sun’s gravitational field out there is also 1/1,600,000,000 of what keeps the Earth on its orbit.  External forces can compete with that.”

“Yeah, I get that, Cathleen, but 3.8 lightdays is … over 400 times closer than the 4½ lightyear distance to the nearest star.  The Sun’s field at the Cloud is stronger than Alpha Centauri’s by at least a factor of 400 squared.”

“Think bigger, Sy.  The galactic core is 26,000 lightyears away, but it’s the center of 700 billion solar masses.  I’ve run the numbers.  At Jim’s Oort-Cloud ‘edge’ the Galaxy’s field is 11% as strong as the Sun’s.  Tidal forces will pull the outer portion of the Cloud into an egg shape pointed to the center of the Milky Way.”

Jeremy’s agog.  “So the edge of the Solar System is 1,000 times further than Pluto?  Wow!”



~~ Rich Olcott


Plutonic Goofyness

Is Pluto wearing a space helmet?
No, that helmet is Pluto.
(Based on a cartoon by Andy Diehl)

Andy Diehl brings up a question worth considering over a tasty beverage.  How come Pluto’s a dog and Goofy’s a dog but Pluto gets the collar end of the leash?  Hardly seems fair.

Which brings us to that other controversial Pluto, the one that NASA’s New Horizon spacecraft visited last July.  (News flash — on 28 October, NASA announced that they’d received the very last of the data NH accumulated during that 2½-hour visit.)  Official Astronomy has reclassified Pluto from “planet” to “dwarf planet,” but NH honcho Alan Stern and much of the rest of the world say, “No way!”

The traditionalist position is, “But we’ve always called Pluto the ninth planet.”  Well, “always” only goes back to when the preternaturally persistent Clyde Tombaugh discovered the object in 1930.  At the time he found it Pluto was indeed the ninth “planet” out from the Sun.  However, it spends about 10% of each orbit* closer to the Sun than the eighth planet, Neptune.  So should we call it the “seven-and-a-fraction-th” planet?

No, because (1) that contravenes Official Astronomy’s rules, and (2) it’d be silly.

So what are the rules for what’s a planet?

  1. The object must be in orbit around its star.
  2. The object must be massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity.
  3. It must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

“Rounded” is a bit tricky.  It doesn’t mean “spherical” because if you spin a  sphere, centrifugal forces move mass towards its equator.  Earth’s equator is 13.3 miles further away from its center than its poles are.  Miller’s Planet in the Interstellar movie is also a spheroid, even further deformed by elongation towards the black hole it orbits, yet it still rates as “rounded by its gravity” and qualifies as a planet.

Clearing the neighborhood” means “my gravity dominates the motion of everything in my orbit.”  Earth and Jupiter, both acknowledged planets, each have retinues of asteroids in the Trojan positions, at the same distance from the Sun as the host planet but in regions 60º ahead of or behind it.  Even so, both planets often suffer messy encounters (remember Chicxulub and Chelyabinsk?) with asteroids and such that hadn’t gotten the memo.

Neptune meets all three criteria.  Its gravity dominates Pluto’s motion even though Pluto’s in a separate orbit.  For every three of Neptune’s trips around the Sun, Pluto makes exactly two.  The gravitational converse doesn’t hold, though.  Pluto’s mass is 0.1% of Neptune’s so the big guy doesn’t care.

pluto-orbits-1This video, from an Orbits Table display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, shows a different Plutonian weirdness.  We’re circling the Solar System at about 50 times Earth’s distance from the Sun (50 AU).  Reading inward, the white lines represent the orbits of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter.  The Asteroid Belt is the small greenish ring close to the Sun.  The four terrestrial planets are even further in.  The Kuiper Belt is the greenish ring that encloses the lot.

The  yellow-orange line is Pluto’s orbit.  Most of the Solar System lies within a thin pancake, the Plane of The Ecliptic. Pluto’s orbit is inclined 17º out of the Plane.  That’s odd.

Theory says that the System evolved from an eddy in a primordial cloud of dust and gas.  Gravity shrank that blob of stuff to form a disk at the eddy’s equator as it drew 99.9% of the system’s mass to form the Sun at the disk’s center.

Newton’s First Law is all about Conservation of Momentum.  When applied to circular motion, it says that if you’re whirling in a certain plane, you’ll continue whirling in that plane unless something knocks you out of that plane.  Hence, the Plane of The Ecliptic.

Pluto’s path is a puzzling challenge to the theory.  It was only a minor puzzle until the 1990’s when astronomers discovered a plethora of Pluto-type objects outside of Neptune’s orbit.  Most run way out of the Plane.  Worst is Eris, at inclination 44º .  Clearly, Pluto’s not special.  It belongs to a large tribe that Astrophysicists must explain if they’re to claim to  understand the Solar System.

~~ Rich Olcott

* – During its current 248-year orbit, Pluto was inside Neptune’s orbit between 1979 and 1999.