Category Archives: Planets

Measuring the tides of Mercury

Hi there! I have already told you about the tides. If you follow me, you know that the tides are the deformations of a planet from the gravitational action of its parent star (the Sun for Mercury), and that a good way to detect them is to measure the variations of the gravity field of a planet from the deviations of a spacecraft orbiting it. From periodic variations we should infer a coefficient k2, known as the potential Love number, which represents the response of the planet to the tides…

That’s all for today! Please feel free to comment… blablabla…

Just kidding!

Today, I will tell you about another way to measure the tides, from the rotation of Mercury. For this, I will present you a study entitled Periodic and quasi-periodic attractors for the spin-orbit evolution of Mercury with a realistic tidal torque, which was recently published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This is a collaboration between English and Italian mathematicians, i.e. Michele Bartuccelli, Jonathan Deane, and Guido Gentile. In planetary sciences mathematics can lead to new discoveries. In this case, the idea is: tides slow down the rotation of a planetary body, which eventually reaches an equilibrium rotation (or spin). For the Moon, the equilibrium is the synchronous rotation, while for Mercury it is the 3:2 spin-orbit resonance. Very well. A very good way to describe this final state is to describe the equilibrium rotation, i.e. in considering that the tides do not affect the spin anymore. But this is just an approximation. The tides are actually still active, and they affect the final state. In considering it, the authors show that the variations of the spin rate of Mercury should be composed of at least two sinusoids, i.e. two periodic effects, the superimposition of these two periods being quasi-periodic… you now understand the title.

The rotation of Mercury

I have already presented you Mercury here. Mercury is the innermost planet of the Solar System, with a semimajor axis which is about one third of the one of the Earth, i.e. some 58 million km, and a surprisingly large orbital eccentricity, which is 0.206. These two elements favor a spin-orbit resonance, i.e. the rotation rate of Mercury is commensurate with its orbital rate. Their ratio is 3/2, Mercury performing a revolution about the Sun in 88 days, while a rotation period is 58 days. You can notice a 3/2 ratio between these two numbers.

The 3:2 spin-orbit resonance of Mercury
The 3:2 spin-orbit resonance of Mercury

Why is this configuration possible as an equilibrium state? If you neglect the dissipation (the authors do not) and the obliquity (the authors do, and they are probably right to do it), you can write down a second-degree ODE (ordinary differential equation), which rules the spin. In this equation, the triaxiality of Mercury plays a major role, i.e. Mercury spins the way it spins because it is triaxial. Another reason is its orbital eccentricity. This ODE has equilibriums, i.e. stable spin rates, among them is the 3:2 spin-orbit resonance.

And what about the obliquity? It is actually an equilibrium as well, known as Cassini State 1, in which the angular momentum of Mercury is tilted from the normal to its orbit by 2 arcminutes. This tilt is a response to the slow precessing motion (period: 300,000 years) of the orbit of Mercury around the Sun.

Let us forget the obliquity. There are several possible spin-orbit ratios for Mercury.

Possible rotation states

If you went back to the ODE which rules the spin-rate of Mercury, you would see that there are actually several equilibrium spin rates, which correspond to p/2 spin-orbit resonances, p being an integer. Among them are the famous synchronous resonance 1:1 (p=2), the present resonance of Mercury (p=3), and other ones, which have never been observed yet.

If we imagine that Mercury initially rotated pretty fast, then it slowed down, and crossed several resonances, e.g. the 4:1, the 7:2, 3:1, 5:2, 2:1… and was trapped in none of them, before eventually being trapped in the present 3:2 one. Or we can imagine that Mercury has been trapped for instance in the 2:1 resonance, and that something (an impact?) destabilized the resonance…
And what if Mercury had been initially retrograde? Why not? Venus is retrograde… In that case, the tides would have accelerated Mercury, which would have been trapped in the synchronous resonance, which is the strongest one. This would mean that this synchronous resonance would have been destabilized, to allow trapping into the 3:2 resonance. Any worthwhile scenario of the spin evolution of Mercury must end up in the 3:2 resonance, since it is the current state. The scenario of an initially retrograde Mercury has been proposed to explain the hemispheric repartition of the observed impacts, which could be a signature of a past synchronous rotation. Could be, but is not necessarily. Another explanation is that the geophysical activity of Mercury would have renewed the surface of only one hemisphere, making the craters visible only on the other part.

Anyway, whatever the past of Mercury, it needed a dissipative process to end up in an equilibrium state. This dissipative process is the tides, assisted or not by core-mantle friction.

The tides

Because of the differential attraction of the Sun on Mercury, you have internal friction, i.e. stress and strains, which dissipate energy, and slow down the rotation. This dissipation is enforced by the orbital eccentricity (0.206), which induces periodic variations of the Sun-Mercury distance.
An interesting question is: how does the material constituting Mercury react to the tides? A critical parameter is the tidal frequency, i.e. the way you dissipates depends on the frequency you shake. A derivation of the tidal torque raised by the Sun proves to be a sum of periodic excitations, one of them being dominant in the vicinity of a resonance. This results in an enforcement of all the spin-orbit resonances, which means that a proper tidal model is critical for accurate simulations of the spin evolution.
A pretty common way to model the tides is the Maxwell model: you define a Maxwell time, which is to be compared with the period of the tidal excitation (the shaking). If your excitation is slow enough, then you will have an elastic deformation, i.e. Mercury will have the ability to recover its shape without loss of energy. However, a more rapid excitation will be dissipative. Then this model can be improved, or refined, in considering more dissipation at high frequencies (Andrade model), or grain-boundary slip (Burgers model)… There are several models in the literature, which are supported by theoretical considerations and lab experiments. Choosing the appropriate one depends on the material you consider, under which conditions, i.e. pressure and temperature, and the excitation frequencies. But in any case, these physically realistic tidal models will enforce the spin-orbit resonances.

Considering only the tides assumes that your body is (almost) homogeneous. Mercury has actually an at least partially molten outer core, i.e. a global fluid layer somewhere in its interior. This induces fluid-solid boundaries, the outer one being called CMB, for core-mantle boundary, and you can have friction there. The authors assumed that the CMB was formed after the trapping of Mercury into its present 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which is supported by some studies. This is why they neglected the core-mantle friction.

This paper

This paper is part of a long-term study on the process of spin-orbit resonance. The authors studied the probabilities of capture (when you slow down until reaching a spin-orbit resonance, will you stay inside or leave it, still slowing down?), proposed numerical integrators adapted to this problem…
In this specific paper, they write down the ODE ruling the dynamics in considering the frequency-dependent tides (which they call realistic), and solve it analytically with a perturbation method, i.e. first in neglecting a perturbation, that they add incrementally, to eventually converge to the real solution. They checked their results with numerical integrations, and they also studied the stability of the solutions (the stable solutions being attractors), and the probabilities of capture.

In my opinion, the main result is: the stable attractor is not periodic but quasi-periodic. Fine, but what does that mean?

If we neglect the influence of the other planets, then the variations of the spin rate of Mercury is expected to be a periodic signal, with a period of 88 days. This is due to the periodic variations of the Sun-Mercury distance, because of the eccentricity. This results in longitudinal librations, which are analogous to the librations of the Moon (we do not see 50% of the surface of the Moon, but 59%, thanks to these librations). The authors say that this solution is not stable. However, a stable solution is the superimposition of these librations with a sinusoid, which period is close to 15 years, and an amplitude of a few arcminutes (to be compared to 15 arcminutes, which is the expected amplitude of the 88-d signal). So, it is not negligible, and this 15-y period is the one of the free (or proper) oscillations of Mercury. A pendulum has a natural frequency of oscillations, here this is exactly the same. But contrarily to a pendulum, the amplitude of these oscillations does not tend to 0. So, we could hope to detect it, which would be a direct observation of the tidal dissipation.

Measuring the rotation

What can we observe? We should first keep in mind that the authors addressed the early Mercury, when being trapped into the 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which was pretty homogeneous. The current Mercury has a global fluid layer, which means a larger (about twice) amplitude of the 88-d signal, and a different dissipative process, the tides being assisted by core-mantle friction. As a consequence, there is no guarantee that the 15-y oscillation (actually a little shorter, some 12 years, because of the fluid core) would still exist, and that would require a dedicated study. But measuring it would be an information anyway.

How to measure it? The first observations of the rotation of Mercury in 1965 and of the librations in 2007 were Earth-based, radar observations, which are sensitive to the velocity. This means that they are more likely to detect a rapid oscillation (88 d, e.g.) than a slow one (12 years…). Observations of the surface of Mercury by the spacecraft MESSENGER confirmed those measurements. In 2018 the ESA/JAXA (Europe / Japan) joint mission Bepi-Colombo will be sent to Mercury, for orbital insertion in 2025 and hopefully a 2-y mission, with a better accuracy than MESSENGER. So, we could hope a refinement of the measurements of the longitudinal motion.

Purple: The 88-d oscillation. Green: Superimposed with the 15-y one. Keep in mind that Bepi-Colombo will orbit Mercury during some 2 years.
Purple: The 88-d oscillation. Green: Superimposed with the 15-y one. Keep in mind that Bepi-Colombo will orbit Mercury during some 2 years.

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Inferring the interior of Venus from the tides

Hi there! Today’s post presents you the study Tidal constraints on the interior of Venus, by Caroline Dumoulin, Gabriel Tobie, Olivier Verhoeven, Pascal Rosenblatt, and Nicolas Rambaux. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The idea is: because of its varying distance to the Sun, Venus experiences periodic variations. What could their measurements tell us on the interior?

Venus vs. the Earth

Venus is sometimes called the twin sister of the Earth, because of its proximity and its size. However, their physical properties show crucial differences, the most crucial one being the atmosphere.

Venus Earth
Semimajor axis (AU) 0.723332 1.000001
Eccentricity 0.0068 0.0167
Inclination 3.86° 7.155°
Obliquity 177.36° 23.439°
Orbital period 224.701 d 365.256 d
Spin period 243.025 d 0.997 d
Surface pressure 92 bar 1.01 bar
Magnetic field (none) 25-65 μT
Mean density 5,243 kg/m3 5,514 kg/m3

As you can see:

  • Venus has a retrograde and very slow rotation,
  • it has a very thick and dense atmosphere,
  • it has no magnetic field.

For a magnetic field to exist, you need a rotating solid core, a global conductive fluid layer, and convection, which is triggered by heat transfers from the core to the mantle. The absence of magnetic field means that at least one of these conditions is not fulfilled. Given the size of Venus and its measured k2 by the spacecraft Magellan (explanations in the next section), it has probably a fluid global layer. However, it seems plausible that the heat transfer is missing. Has the core cooled enough? Is the surface hot enough so that the temperature has reached an equilibrium? Possible.

Probing the interior of Venus is not an easy task; an idea is to measure the time variations of its gravity field.

Tidal deformations

The orbital eccentricity of Venus induces variations of its distance to the Sun, and variations of the gravitational torque exerted by it. Since Venus is not strictly rigid, it experiences periodic deformations, which frequencies are known as tidal frequencies. These deformations can be expressed with the potential Love number k2, which gives you the amplitude of the variations of the gravity field. Since the gravity field can be measured from deviations of the spacecraft orbiting the planet, we dispose of a measurement, i.e. k2 = 0.295 ± 0.066. It has been published in 1996 from Magellan data (see here a review on the past exploration of Venus). You can note the significant uncertainty on this number. Actually k2 should be decorrelated from the other parameters affecting the trajectory of the spacecraft, e.g. the flattening of the planet, the atmosphere, which is very dense, motor impulses of the spacecraft… This is why it was impossible to be more accurate.

Other parameters can be used to quantify the tides. Among them are

  • the topographic Love number h2, which quantified the deformations of the surface. Observing the surface of Venus is a task strongly complicated by the atmosphere. Magellan provided a detailed map thanks to a laser altimeter. Mountains have been detected. But these data do not permit to measure h2.
  • The dissipation function Q. If I consider that the deformations of the gravity field are periodic and represented by k2 only, I mean that Venus is elastic. That mean that it does not dissipate any energy, it has an instantaneous response to the tidal solicitations, and the resulting tidal bulge always points exactly to the Sun. Actually there is some dissipation, which results as a phase lag between the tidal bulge and the Venus – Sun direction. Measuring this phase lag would give k2/Q, and that information would help to constrain the interior.

A 3-layer-Venus

Such a large body is expected to be denser in the core than at the surface, and is usually modeled with 3 layers: a core, a mantle, and a crust. Venus also have an atmosphere, but this is not a very big deal in this specific case. These are not necessarily homogeneous layers, the mantle and the core are sometimes assumed to have a global outer fluid layer. If this would happen for the core, then we would have a solid (rigid) inner core, and a fluid (molten) outer core. This interior must be modeled to estimate the tidal quantities. More precisely, you need to know the radial evolution of the density, and of the velocities of the longitudinal (P) and transverse (S) seismic waves. These two velocities tell us about the viscosity of the material.

Possible interior of Venus (not to scale). Copyright: The Planetary Mechanics Blog

Modeling the core from PREM

PREM is the Preliminary Reference Earth Model. It was published in 1981, and elaborated from thousands of seismic observations. Their inversions gave the radial distribution of the density, dissipation function, and elastic properties for the Earth. It is now used as a standard Earth model.

The lack of data regarding the core of Venus prompted the authors, and many of their predecessors, to rescale PREM from the Earth to Venus.

Modeling the mantle from Perple_X

The properties of the mantle of Venus depend on its composition and the radial distribution of its temperature, its composition itself depending on the formation of the planet. The authors identified 5 different models of formation of Venus in the literature, which affect 5 variables: mass of the core, abundance of uranium (U), K/U ratio (K: potassium), Tl/U ratio (Tl: thallium), and FeO/(FeO+MgO) ratio (FeO: iron oxide, MgO: magnesium oxide). Only 3 of these 5 models were kept, two being end-members, and the third one being pretty close to the Earth. These 3 models were associated with two end-members for temperature profiles, which can be found in the scientific literature. This then resulted in 6 models, and their properties, i.e. density and velocities of the P- and S-waves, were obtained thanks to the Perple_X code. This code gives phase diagrams in a geodynamic context, i.e. under which conditions (pressure and temperature) you can have a solid, liquid, and / or gaseous phase(s) (they sometimes coexist) in a planetary body.

Numerical modeling of the tidal parameters

Once the core and the mantle have been modeled, a 60-km-thick crust have been added on the top, and then the tidal quantities have been calculated. For that, the authors used a numerical algorithm elaborated in Japan in 1974, using 6 radial functions y. y1 and y3 are associated with the radial and tangential displacements, y2 and y4 are related to the radial and tangential stresses, y5 is associated with the gravitational potential, while y6 guarantees a property of the continuity of the gravitational force in the structure. These functions will then give the tidal quantities.


The results essentially consist of a description of the possible interiors and elastic properties of Venus for different values of k2, which are consistent with the Magellan measurements. But the main information is this: Venus may have a solid inner core. Previous studied had discarded this possibility, arguing that k2 should have been 0.17 at the most. However, the authors show that considering viscoelastic properties of the mantle, i.e. dissipation, would result in a smaller pressure in the core, i.e. <300 GPa, for a k2 consistent with Magellan. This does not mean that Venus has a solid inner core, this just means that it is possible. Actually, the authors also get interior models with a fully fluid core.
The atmosphere would alter k2 by only 3 to 4%.

The authors claim that the uncertainty on k2 is too large to have an accurate knowledge on the interior, and they hope that future measurements of k2 and of k2/Q, which has never been measured yet, would give better constraints.

The forthcoming and proposed missions to Venus

For this hope to be fulfilled, we should send spacecrafts to Venus in the future. The authors mention EnVision, which applies to the ESA M5 call (M for middle-class). This is a very competitive call, and we should know the finalists very soon. If selected, EnVision would consist of an orbiter on a low and circular orbit, which would focus on geology and geochimical cycles. It should also measure k2 with an accuracy of 3%, and give us a first measurement of k2/Q.

In America, two missions to Venus have been proposed for the Discovery program of NASA: VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) and DAVINCI (Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging). They have both been rejected.

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The contraction of Mercury

Hi there! Today’s post deals with the early evolution of Mercury, in particular its cooling. At the beginning of its life, a planet experiences variations of temperature, and then cooling, and while cooling, it contracts. The surface may present some signature of this contraction, and this is the object of the paper I present you today. It is entitled Timing and rate of global contraction of Mercury, by Kelsey T. Crane and Christian Klimczak, from the University of Georgia, and it has been recently accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters. The idea is to infer the history of the contraction from the observation of the craters and the faults.

Mercury’s facts

Mercury is the innermost planet of the Solar System, with a mean distance to the Sun which is about one third of the Sun-Earth distance. It has an eccentric orbit, with an eccentricity of 0.206, and orbits the Sun in 88 days while the planet rotates around itself in 58 days. This is very long when compared to the terrestrial day, but it also means that there is a ratio 1.5 between the spin and the orbital frequencies. This is called a 3:2 spin-orbit resonance, which is a dynamical equilibrium favored by the proximity of the Sun and the orbital eccentricity.

Mercury seen by MESSENGER (Credit: NASA)

An interesting fact is the high density of Mercury, i.e. Mercury is too dense for a terrestrial planet. Usually, a large enough body is expected to have a stratified structure, in which the heaviest elements are concentrated in the core. Mercury is so dense than it is thought to be the core of a former and larger proto-Mercury.

Mercury’s early life

There is no agreement on the way Mercury lost its mantle of lighter elements. You can find the following scenarios in the literature:

  1. Slow volatilization of the mantle by the solar wind,
  2. Very large impact,
  3. Loss of the light elements by photophoresis,
  4. Magnetic erosion.

The scenario of the large impact was very popular until the arrival of MESSENGER, in particular because the models of formation of the Solar System and the observation of the surface of Mercury suggest that Mercury has been heavily impacted in its early life. However, the detection of volatiles elements, in particular potassium, on the surface of Mercury, is interpreted by some planetary scientists as inconsistent with the large impact scenario. The large impact would have induced extreme heating of the planet, and for some scientists the potassium would not have survived this episode. The other scenarios involve much slower processes, and less heating.

This raises the question: how hot was the early Mercury? We still do not know, but this is related to the study I present here.

The exploration of Mercury

The proximity of Mercury to the Sun makes it difficult to explore, because of the large gravitational action of the Sun which significantly perturbs the orbit of a spacecraft, and more importantly because of the large temperatures in this area of the Solar System.

Contrarily to Venus and Mars, which regularly host space programs, Mercury has been and will be the target of only 3 space missions so far:

  1. Mariner 10 (NASA): It has been launched in November 1973 to make flybys of Venus and Mercury. Three flybys of Mercury have been realized between March 1974 and March 1975. This mission gave us the first images of the surface of the planet, covering some 45% of it. It also discovered the magnetic field of Mercury.
  2. MESSENGER (Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry, and Ranging) (NASA): This was the first human-made object to orbit Mercury. It was launched in August 2004 from Cape Canaveral and has been inserted around Mercury in March 2011, after one flyby of the Earth, two flybys of Venus, and three flybys of Mercury. These flybys permitted to use the gravity of the planets to reduce the velocity of the spacecraft, which was necessary for the orbital insertion. MESSENGER gave us invaluable data, like the gravity field of Mercury, a complete cartography with topographical features (craters, plains, faults,…), new information on the gravity field, it supplemented Earth-based radar measurements of the rotation, it revealed the chemical composition of the surface… The mission stopped in April 2015.
  3. Bepi-Colombo (ESA / JAXA): This is a joint mission of the European and Japanese space agencies, which is composed of two elements: the Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter (MMO, JAXA), and the Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO, ESA). It should be launched in October 2018 and inserted into orbit in December 2025, after one flyby of the Earth, two flybys of Venus, and 6 flybys of Mercury. Beside the acquisition of new data on the planet with a better accuracy than MESSENGER, it will also perform a test of the theory of the general relativity, in giving new measurements of the post-newtonian parameters β and γ. β is associated with the non-linearities of the gravity field, while γ is related with the curvature of the spacetime. In the theory of the general relativity, these two parameters should be strictly equal to 1.

This paper

The idea of the paper is based on the competition between two processes for altering the surface of Mercury:

  1. Impacts, which are violent, rapid phenomena, creating craters,
  2. Tides, which is a much slower process that creates faults, appearing while the planet is contracting. The local stress tensor can be inferred from the direction of the faults.

Dating a crater is possible, from its preservation. And when a crater and a fault are located at the same place, there are two possibilities:

  1. either the fault cuts the crater (see Enheduanna, just below), or
  2. the crater interrupts the fault.

In the first case, the fault appeared after the impact, while in the second case, the fault was already present before Mercury was impacted. So, if you can constrain the age of the crater, you can constrain the apparition of the fault, and the contraction of the planet. From a global analysis of the age of the faults, the authors deduced the variation of the contraction rate over the ages.

A close up of Enheduanna Crater. Credit: IAU

The authors used a database of 3,112 craters ranging from 20 to 2,000 km, which were classified into 5 classes, depending on their degree of preservation. And the result are given below.

Class Name Age Craters Cut Superpose
1+2 Pre-Tolstojan + Tolstojan >3.9 Gy 2,310 1,192 4
3 Calorian 3.9 – 3.5 Gy 536 266 104
4 Mansurian 3.5 – 1 Gy 244 49 55
5 Kuiperian < 1 Gy 22 0 3

We can see that the eldest craters are very unlikely to superpose a fault, while the bombardment was very intense at that time. However, the authors have detected more superposition after. They deduced the following contraction rates:

Time Contraction (radius)
Pre-Tolstojan + Tolstojan 4.0 ± 1.6 km
Calorian 0.90 ± 0.35 km
Mansurian 0.17 ± 0.07 km
Kuiperian 0

This means that the contraction rate has decreased over the ages, which is not surprising, since the temperature of Mercury has slowly reached an equilibrium.

A perspective : constraining the early days of Mercury

In my opinion, such a study could permit to constrain the evolution of the temperature of Mercury over the ages, and thus date its stratification. Maybe this would also give new clues on the way Mercury lost its light elements (impact or not?).

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Energy dissipation in Saturn

Hi there! I will tell you today about the letter Frequency-dependent tidal dissipation in a viscoelastic Saturnian core and expansion of Mimas’ semi-major axis, by Daigo Shoji and Hauke Hussmann, both working at the DLR in Berlin, Germany. This paper has recently been published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Saturn’s facts

Do I need to introduce Saturn? Saturn is the sixth planet of the Solar System by its distance to the Sun, and the second by its size. It orbits the Sun at a mean distance of 1.5 billions of km, in 29.4 years. It has more than 200 satellites, which comprises small moons embedded in the rings, mid-sized icy satellites, a large one, i.e. Titan, and very far small moons which are probably trapped objects. Which means that the other bodies are expected to have formed while orbiting around Saturn, or formed from the same protoplanetary disk.
Saturn is particularly known for its large rings, which can be observed from the Earth with almost any telescope. Moreover this planet is on average less dense than the water, which is due to a large atmosphere enshrouding a core. The total radius of Saturn is about 60,000 km, which actually corresponds to a pressure of 1 bar in the atmosphere, while the radius of the core is about 13,000 km. The paper I present today is particularly focused on the core.

A new view of the formation of the satellites of Saturn

The spacecraft Cassini orbits Saturn since 2004, and has given us invaluable information on the planet, the rings, and the satellites. Some of these information pushed the French planetologist Sébastien Charnoz, assisted by French and US colleagues, to propose a new model of formation of the satellites from the rings: this model states that instead of having formed with Saturn, the rings are pretty recent, i.e. less than 1 Gyr, and are due to the disintegration of an impactor.
Once the debris rearranged as a disk, reaccretion of material would have created the satellites, which would then have migrated outward, because of the tidal interaction with the planet… This means that it is crucial to understand the tidal interaction.

Tidal dissipation in the planets

I have already discussed of tides in this blog. Basically: when you are a satellite (you dream of that, don’t you?) orbiting Saturn, you are massive enough (sorry) to alter the shape of the planet, and raise a bulge which would almost be aligned with you… Almost because while the material constituting the planet responds, you have moved, but actually the bulge is in advance because the planet rotates faster than you orbit around it (you still follow me?). As a consequence, you generate a torque which tends to slow down the spin of the planet, and this is compensated by an outward migration of the satellite (of you, since you are supposed to be the satellite). This compensation comes from the conservation of the angular momentum. You can imagine that the planet also raises a tidal bulge on the satellite, but this does not deal with our paper. So, not today.

A consequence of tides is the secular migration of the planetary satellites. Lunar Laser Ranging measurements have detected an outward migration of the Moon at a rate of 3 cm/y. It is not that easy to measure the migration of the satellites of Saturn. An initial estimation, based on the pre-Cassini assumption that the satellites were as old as the Solar System, considered that the satellite Mimas would have at the most migrated from the synchronous orbit to its present one, in 4.5 Gyr. The relevant quantity is the dissipation function Q, and this condition would have meant Q>18,000, in neglecting dissipation in Mimas. Recent measurements based on Cassini observations suggest Q ≈ 2,600, which would be another invalidation of the assumption of primordial satellites.

Several models of dissipation

To make things a little more technical: we are interested in the way the material responds to an external, gravitational sollicitation. This sollicitation is quasi-periodic, i.e. it can be expressed as a sum of periodic, sinusoidal terms. With each of these terms is associated a frequency, on which the response of the material depends. This affects the quantity k2/Q, k2 being a Love number and Q the dissipation function I have just presented. Splitting these two quantities is sometimes useless, since they appear as this ratio in the equations ruling the orbital evolution of the satellites.

Tides in a solid body

By solid body, I mean a body with some elasticity. Its shape can be altered, but not that much. An elastic response would not dissipate any energy, while a viscoelastic one would, and would be responsible for the migration of the orbits of the satellites.
It was long considered that the tidal dissipation did not depend on the excitation frequency, which is physically irrelevant and could lead to non-physical conclusions, e.g. the belief in a stable super-synchronous rotation for planetary satellites.
We now consider that the response of the material is pretty elastic for slow excitations, and viscoelastic for rapid ones. If you do not shake the material too much, then you have a chance to not alter it. If you are brutal, then forget it.
For that, a pretty simple tidal model rendering this behavior is the Maxwell model, based on one parameter which is the Maxwell time. It is defined as the ratio between the viscosity and the rigidity of the material, and it somehow represents the limit between the elastic and the viscoelastic responses.
A refining model for icy satellites is the Andrade model, which considers a higher dissipation at high frequencies.

Tides in a gaseous planet

If the planet is a ball of gas, a fortiori a fluid, then the behavior is different, actually much more complicated. You should consider Coriolis forces in the gas, turbulent behaviors, which can be highly non-linear.
A recent model has been presented by Jim Fuller, in which he considers the possibility of resonant interactions between the fluid and the satellites, which would result in a high dissipation at the exact orbital frequency of the satellite, and the resonant condition would induce that this high dissipation would survive the migration of the satellite. You can see here an explanation of this phenomenon, drawn by James T. Keane.

This paper

This paper aims at checking whether a dissipation of the planet, which would be essentially viscoelastic, could be consistent with the recent measurements of tides. For that, the authors modeled Saturn as an end-member, in neglecting every dissipation in the atmosphere. They considered different plausible numbers for the viscosity and rigidity in the core Saturn, in assuming it has no internal fluid layer, and numerically integrated the migration of Mimas, the variation of its orbital frequency in the expression of tides being taken into account.

And the result is that the viscosity should be of the order of 1013-1014 Pa.s. Smaller and higher numbers would be inconsistent with the measured dissipation.
Moreover, some of these viscosities are found to be consistent with the assumption of a primordial Mimas, i.e. with an inward migration from the synchronous orbit in 4.5 Gyr.


This letter probably presents a preliminary study, the whole study requiring to consider additional effects, like the pull of the rings, the influence of the atmosphere, and the mean-motion resonances between the satellites (see this post), which themselves alter the rate of migration. And this is why this letter does not invalidate Charnoz’s model of formation, nor Fuller’s tides, but just says that other explanations are possible.

Useful links

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The surface of Mars is fractal

Hi there! Today’s post is a pretty much different than usual. I will present you a mathematical analysis of planetary features. More precisely, a paper investigating the fractal structure of the surface of Mars. This is a paper entitled Mars topography investigated through the wavelet method: A multidimensional study of its fractal structure, by Adrien Deliège, Thomas Kleyntssens and Samuel Nicolay, which has been recently published in Planetary and Space Science. This study has been conducted at the University of Liège (Belgium).

The surface of Mars

The Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), as instrument of Mars Global Surveyor, provided us a very accurate map of the whole surface of Mars, which is far from boring. It has for instance an hemispheric asymmetry, the Northern hemispheric being composed of pretty flat, new terrains, which the Southern one is very cratered (several thousands of craters). The northern new terrains are made of lava, which is a fingerprint of past geophysical activity. Moreover, Mars has two icy polar caps.

Among the remarkable features are:

  • Olympus Mons, which is the highest known mountain in the Solar System. This is a former volcano, which rises 22 km above the surrounding volcanic plains.
  • The Tharsis region, which contains many volcanoes.
  • Hellas Planitia, which is a huge impact basin (diameter: 2300 km, depth: 7 km), located in the Southern hemisphere.

You can find below an annotated map, please click!

The topology of Mars. Credit: USGS Astrogeology Science Center

The mission Mars Global Surveyor

The missions Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) is a NASA mission, which has been launched in November 1996, and has been inserted into orbit around Mars 10 months later, i.e. September 1997. It became silent in November 2006 after 3 extensions of the nominal mission, and gave us invaluable data during almost 10 years. It embarked 5 scientific instruments:

  • the Mars Orbiter Camera (MOC), a wide angle camera which gave us images of the surface and of the two satellites of Mars Phobos and Deimos,
  • the Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA), which gave us the most accurate topographic measurements of Mars. The study I present today uses its data,
  • the Thermal Emission Spectrometer (TES), which studied the atmosphere of Mars, and the thermal emission of the surface. This instrument observed in the infrared band,
  • the magnetometer, which studied the magnetic field of Mars,
  • and the radio-science, which measured the gravity field of the planet.

Mars Global Surveyor was of great help to prepare the further missions. It allowed in particular to identify landing sites for rovers.

The rich topography of Mars has encouraged many scientists to characterize it with a fractal structure.

Fractals and multifractals

A fractal is a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern displayed at every scale, see the following figure, which shows the well-known Mandelbrot set.

The Mandelbrot set, plotted by myself after an inspiration from Rosetta Code. The zoom on the right shows the same structure than on the left, with a larger scale.

It is tempting to quantify the “fractality” of such a set. A convenient indicator is the Hausdorff dimension, which is an extension of the dimension of a space. A line is a space of dimension 1, a plane is of dimension 2, and a volume of dimension 3. Now, if you look at the Mandelbrot set, for instance, its contour is a line of infinite length (actually depending on the resolution of the plot), which tends to fill the plane, but does not fill it entirely. So, it makes sense that its dimension should be a real number larger than 1 and smaller than 2. The Hausdorff dimension quantifies how a fractal set fills the space. The Hausdorff dimension of the Mandelbrot set is 2, the one of the coastline of Great-Britain is 1.25, and the one of the coastline of Norway is 1.52.

For a natural object, things are not necessarily that easy, in the sense that some parts of the objects could look like a fractal, and some not, or look like another fractal. Then the object is said multifractal.

The Hausdorff dimension is not the only possible measure of a fractal object. In the paper I present today, the authors use the Hölder exponent, which represents how continuous the function is. Here, the function is the height of a terrain, it depends on its coordinates, i.e. longitude and latitude, on the surface of Mars. The Hölder exponent is usually more appropriate for sets of numerical data.

The wavelet transforms

The wavelet transform is a mathematical transform, which aims at measuring the periodicity of a phenomenon, and gives the amplitude of a periodic contribution, at a given period. In our case, the idea is to measure periodic patterns in the spatial evolution of the height of the surface of Mars.
For that, the authors use more specifically the wavelet leaders methods, which will in particular give them the Hölder exponent, and tell them how (mono)fractal / multifractal the topography of Mars is.


The “fractality” actually depends on the scale you are considering. The authors disposed of MOLA data, with a resolution of 0.463 km. They analyzed them twice, once in performing 1-D analyses, in considering the longitude and the latitude independently, and once in a 2-dimensional analysis, which is probably new in this context. And here are their results:

  • The surface of Mars is monofractal if you look at it at scales smaller than 15 km.
  • It is multifractal for scales larger than 60 km (the authors considered that the range 15-60 km is a transtition zone).
  • The “monofractality” is better in longitude than in latitude. This could be due to the hemispherical asymmetry of Mars, to the polar caps, and / or to the fact that the representation surface is just a planar projection, which necessarily alters it.
  • Some features can be detected from the variations of the Hölder exponent, especially the plains. However, this technique seems to fail for the volcanoes.

Some links

That’s it for today! I hope you enjoyed this post. I particularly like the idea to give a mathematical representation of a natural object. Please feel free to comment! You can also subscribe to the Twitter @planetmechanix and to the RSS feed.