DOI: 10.3390/universe10010015 ISSN: 2218-1997

Chaotic Capture of a Retrograde Moon by Venus and the Reversal of Its Spin

Valeri V. Makarov, Alexey Goldin
  • General Physics and Astronomy

Planets are surrounded by fractal surfaces (traditionally called Hill spheres), separating the inner zones of long-term stable orbital motion of their satellites from the outer space where the gravitational pull from the Sun takes over. Through this surface, external minor bodies in trajectories loosely co-orbital to a planet can be stochastically captured by the planet without any assistance from external perturbative forces, and can become moons chaotically orbiting the planet for extended periods of time. Using state-of-the-art orbital integrators, we simulate such capture events for Venus, resulting in long-term attachment phases by reversing the forward integration of a moon initially attached to the planet and escaping it after an extended period of time. Chaotic capture of a retrograde moon from a prograde heliocentric orbit appears to be more probable because the Hill sphere is almost four times larger in area for a retrograde orbit than for a prograde orbit. Simulated capture trajectories include cases with attachment phases up to 860,000 years for prograde moons and up to 370,000 years for retrograde moons. Although the probability of a long-term chaotic capture from a single encounter is generally low, the high density of co-orbital bodies in the primordial protoplanetary disk makes this outcome possible, if not probable. The early Venus was surrounded by a dusty gaseous disk of its own, which, coupled with the tidal dissipation of the kinetic energy in the moon and the planet, could shrink the initial orbit and stabilize the captured body within the Hill surface. The tidal torque from the moon, for which we use the historical name Neith, gradually brakes the prograde rotation of Venus, and then reverses it, while the orbit continues to decay. Neith eventually reaches the Roche radius and disintegrates, probably depositing most of its material on Venus’ surface. Our calculations show that surface density values of about 0.06 kg m−2 for the debris disk may be sufficient to stabilize the initial chaotic orbit of Neith and to bring it down within several radii of Venus, where tidal dissipation becomes more efficient.

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