Context. Unraveling the events that took place in the solar system during the period known as the late heavy bombardment requires the interpretation of the cratered surfaces of the Moon and terrestrial planets. This, in turn, requires good estimates of the statistical impact probabilities for different source populations of projectiles, a subject that has received relatively little attention, since the works of Opik (1951, Proc. R. Irish Acad. Sect. A, 54, 165) and Wetherill (1967, J. Geophys. Res., 72, 2429). Aims. We aim to work around the limitations of the Opik and Wetherill formulae, which are caused by singularities due to zero denominators under special circumstances. Using modern computers, it is possible to make good estimates of impact probabilities by means of Monte Carlo simulations, and in this work, we explore the available options. Methods. We describe three basic methods to derive the average impact probability for a projectile with a given semi-major axis, eccentricity, and inclination with respect to a target planet on an elliptic orbit. One is a numerical averaging of the Wetherill formula; the next is a Monte Carlo super-sizing method using the target's Hill sphere. The third uses extensive minimum orbit intersection distance (MOID) calculations for a Monte Carlo sampling of potentially impacting orbits, along with calculations of the relevant interval for the timing of the encounter allowing collision. Numerical experiments are carried out for an intercomparison of the methods and to scrutinize their behavior near the singularities (zero relative inclination and equal perihelion distances). Results. We find an excellent agreement between all methods in the general case, while there appear large differences in the immediate vicinity of the singularities. With respect to the MOID method, which is the only one that does not involve simplifying assumptions and approximations, the Wetherill averaging impact probability departs by diverging toward infinity, while the Hill sphere method results in a severely underestimated probability. We provide a discussion of the reasons for these differences, and we finally present the results of the MOID method in the form of probability maps for the Earth and Mars on their current orbits. These maps show a relatively flat probability distribution, except for the occurrence of two ridges found at small inclinations and for coinciding projectile/target perihelion distances. Conclusions. Our results verify the standard formulae in the general case, away from the singularities. In fact, severe shortcomings are limited to the immediate vicinity of those extreme orbits. On the other hand, the new Monte Carlo methods can be used without excessive consumption of computer time, and the MOID method avoids the problems associated with the other methods.
2014. Vol. 569, A47- p.
celestial mechanics, comets: general, planets and satellites: terrestrial planets, minor planets, asteroids: general