Trojans and Comets

6.4.1 Trojans

Jupiter is such a massive planet that it controls its own family of asteroids. These bodies are known as Trojans and reside in Trojan clouds located at or near Jupiter's lagrangian points L4 and L5 (Fig. 6.51). The lagrangian points are locations along Jupiter's orbit where the gravitational attraction from the Sun and Jupiter are balanced. Trojans have diameters < 300 km, yet their numbers are so great that they number as many objects as contained in the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Fig. 6.51. A simplified view of the Trojan asteroid clouds at Jupiter's L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. These clouds are composed of small bodies with diameters < 300 km. The gravitational attraction from the Sun and Jupiter are balanced near these areas, allowing the objects to have stable orbits over the age of the Solar system. The dashed circle around Jupiter shows its Hill sphere, or the area where Jupiter's gravity dominates that of the Sun. This Hill sphere is the area in which all of Jupiter's satellites are found. (Credit: Scott C. Sheppard)

Fig. 6.51. A simplified view of the Trojan asteroid clouds at Jupiter's L4 and L5 Lagrangian points. These clouds are composed of small bodies with diameters < 300 km. The gravitational attraction from the Sun and Jupiter are balanced near these areas, allowing the objects to have stable orbits over the age of the Solar system. The dashed circle around Jupiter shows its Hill sphere, or the area where Jupiter's gravity dominates that of the Sun. This Hill sphere is the area in which all of Jupiter's satellites are found. (Credit: Scott C. Sheppard)

6.4.2 Jupiter Family Comets

Jupiter also has great influence over comets that fall in toward the Sun. Short period comets, having orbital periods < 20 years and low inclinations, are controlled by Jupiter. Short period comets are thought to originate from the Kuiper Belt. From time to time, the orbits of these objects may be jostled due to collisions or gravitational affects, altering their orbits and sending them on a new path in toward the Sun. The new orbit of the comet will cross the orbit of Jupiter, allowing gravitational interaction. Over time, the comet's orbit will gradually change until it is either thrown out of the solar system or it collides with a planet or the Sun. The most spectacular example of a planetary collision in our lifetime was that of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which crashed into Jupiter in 1994 (Fig. 6.52).

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