The equatorial ridge of Iapetus seen by Cassini © NASA

The mountainous equator of Iapetus

Hi there! You may have heard of Iapetus, a large satellite of Saturn which orbits very far. Today I will tell you about its equatorial ridge. This is the opportunity for me to present you Testing models for the formation of the equatorial ridge on Iapetus via crater counting, by Amanda L. Damptz, Andrew J. Dombard & Michelle R. Kirchoff, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The satellite Iapetus

The satellite of Saturn Iapetus was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini in October 1671. It orbited then on the western side of Saturn. During many years, i.e. until 1705, he was unable to observe it on the eastern side, since it was two magnitudes fainter. This has two implications:

  1. Iapetus has a two-tone coloration, i.e. a dark and a bright hemisphere,
  2. its rotation is synchronous. Like our Moon, it is locked in the synchronous 1:1 spin-orbit resonance, constantly showing the same face to Saturn.

Beside this, Iapetus is a large body (diameter: 1,470 km), which orbits at 3.5 millions km from Saturn (for comparison, Titan orbits almost thrice closer), with an orbital eccentricity of 0.028, very close to the one of Titan. It has an unexpectedly high orbital inclination, i.e. 15.47° with the equator of Saturn, and 8.13° with the Laplace Plane. We should imagine the proto-Saturn nebula, from which Iapetus has probably been formed. It was pretty much like a disc, but distorted by the Sun if you were far enough from Saturn, which is the case for Iapetus. What I mean is that the gravitational action of the Sun tends to shift the equilibrium orbital plane from the equatorial one, this is why we need to distinguish it, and we call it the Laplace Plane. In that case, the orbital inclination of Iapetus with respect to the Laplace Plane should be very small, but it is not. This probably contains an information on the history of Iapetus, but we do not know which one yet.

Let me go back to the rotation. Iapetus is so far from Saturn that it needs almost 80 days to complete one revolution, and 80 days for a rotation, since it is synchronous. This is the largest known spin period for a natural satellite in the Solar System.

As most of the satellites of Saturn, our knowledge of Iapetus made invaluable progress since 2004 thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, which imaged it. It confirmed the two-tone coloration, and detected a mountainous equatorial ridge.

Iapetus seen by the Cassini spacecraft. © NASA
Iapetus seen by the Cassini spacecraft. © NASA

The equatorial ridge

The Cassini images showed a 20 km-wide mountainous ridge, which is very close to the equator. So close that it is hard to believe it appeared there by chance. It is present on the dark hemisphere, while isolated equatorial mountains can be seen on the bright side. Some peaks reach 20 km.

Since its discovery late 2004, this ridge is a matter of investigation, and several competing explanations can be found in the literature:

  1. A signature of its past, fast rotation (the measured oblateness of Iapetus is consistent with a rotation period of 16 hours)
  2. A signature of a past critical spin state, i.e. close to provoke disruption of Iapetus,
  3. Upwarping of the lithosphere from below,
  4. Cryovolcanism,
  5. Planetary contraction,
  6. Material from an ancient ring system,
  7. Material from impact generated debris.

We can see that some of these scenarios propose an inner (endogenic) cause, while others propose an outer (exogenic) one. Almost all of them suggest an early formation of the ridge, except the last one.
One way to date a geological feature is to count its craters, and this is where this study intervenes. Its first product is a database of 7,748 craters ranging from 0.83 to 591 km in diameter.

Counting the craters

When an impactor reaches a planetary surface, it creates a crater. If one day geological processes are strong enough to create a tectonic feature, then it may at least alter the crater, or even hide it. If we see an uncraterized geological feature, that means that it is pretty young. We could even try to give it an age in estimating the evolution of the cratering rates over the evolution of the Solar System. By the way, the early Solar System was very intensively bombarded, with an episode of Late Heavy Bombardment occurring between 4.1 and 3.8 billions years ago. Bombardments still happen nowadays, but are much less frequent.

In this study the authors worked from Cassini and Voyager images of the surface of Iapetus, and considered different zones: central ridge, peripheral ridge, and off ridge. Moreover they classified the craters following their diameters, so as to estimate a distribution law: number of craters vs. size. They also catalogued the orientation of the deformations of the craters, since it could tell us something on the geological evolution of Iapetus (how did it alter the surface?)

This systematic search for craters was assisted by the commercial software Esri’s ArcGIS, supplemented by the dedicated add-on Crater Helper Tools.

Results

The first result is a database of 7,748 craters. But the main question is: what can we say about the ridge? The authors observe a depletion of large craters, i.e. with a diameter bigger than 16 km, in the ridge, which would be consistent with a pretty recent formation, and thus would favor the scenario of a ridge created by the debris of an impact. Nevertheless, the authors are prudent with this conclusion, they seem to suggest that the resolution of the images and the risk of saturation of small craters (when you are heavily bombarded, new craters destroyed ancient ones, and the overall number does not increase) do not permit to discard a scenario of early formation of the ridge. Further studies will probably be needed to reach an agreement on the origin of this mountainous equator.

The study and its authors

That’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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