Even by the standards of the outer solar system, the strange orbits that carry Neptune’s two innermost moons are unprecedented as it appears to do a ‘dance of avoidance’.
Orbital dynamics experts are calling it a “dance of avoidance” performed by the tiny moons Naiad and Thalassa. The two are true partners, orbiting only about 1,150 miles (1,850 kilometers) apart. But they never get that close to each other; Naiad’s orbit is tilted and perfectly timed. Every time it passes the slower-moving Thalassa, the two are about 2,200 miles (3,540 kilometers) apart.
In this perpetual choreography, Naiad swirls around the ice giant every seven hours, while Thalassa, on the outside track, takes seven and a half hours. An observer sitting on Thalassa would see Naiad in an orbit that varies wildly in a zigzag pattern, passing by twice from above and then twice from below. This up, up, down, down pattern repeats every time Naiad gains four laps on Thalassa.
Although the dance may appear odd, it keeps the orbits stable, researchers said.
“We refer to this repeating pattern as a resonance,” said Marina Brozović, an expert in solar system dynamics at NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the lead author of the new paper, which was published Nov. 13 in Icarus. “There are many different types of ‘dances’ that planets, moons and asteroids can follow, but this one has never been seen before.”
Far from the pull of the Sun, the giant planets of the outer solar system are the dominant sources of gravity, and collectively, they boast dozens upon dozens of moons. Some of those moons formed alongside their planets and never went anywhere; others were captured later, then locked into orbits dictated by their planets. Some orbit in the opposite direction their planets rotate; others swap orbits with each other as if to avoid collision.