Category Archives: Satellites of Jupiter

Astrometry from close approaches

Hi there! Today, we discuss of astrometry of the satellites of Jupiter. It consists in answering the question : where are they? Basically, you look at them, and you see where they are… well, it is more complicated than that, actually.
This is the opportunity to present APPROX – mutual approximations between the Galilean moons: the 2016-2018 observational campaign, by Bruno Morgado and several collaborators. Since this paper presents an observation campaign, involving Brazil and France, there are many observers, hence many co-authors. This study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Astrometry of the natural satellites

In fact, you can make astrometry of any celestial object. Star, satellite, galaxy, whatever… It is of course easier when the body looks like a dot.

When we look at the celestial sphere, you look in 2D. The space is in 3D, but technically we see a projection of this volume on a sphere, which is called the celestial sphere. Since it is a 2D space, you can also consider two coordinates. Let us call them right ascension and declination. So, you want to know the motion of these bodies, you observe them, and measure their positions.

The astronomers of the past, I mean in the pre-photographic era, used a filar micrometer. This consisted of a screw and a reticle, made of two threads. When observing two celestial bodies, the observer saw two lines in the field, that (s)he could move thanks to the micrometric screw, one on one body, the other line on the other body, and from the motion of the screw he knew the projected (apparent) distance between the two bodies. So, only one dimension at that time.

And then came the photography: you take a picture of the field (small part of the sky), and you measure the coordinates of the bodies. This way you can get two coordinates. The techniques improved since then, with automatic surveys, taking automatic images of the sky, measuring automatically the coordinates,etc.

But why doing that?

Detecting physical phenomena

It is for understanding the motion of an object. For instance, if you take a natural satellite, you know that it orbits its parent planet, following the classical gravitation law of Newton (improved since Einstein and the discovery of general relativity, but you do not need that refinement to understand the dynamics of the natural satellites). But first you have to make sure it is a satellite of that planet. If it follows it on the sky, then it is fine. And to simulate its motion, you must know some parameters, especially the mass of the planet, of the satellite, the flattening of the planet, the masses of the other satellites (yes, they disturb each other). Well, that becomes tricky. And this is why you need those astrometric observations. Your dynamical model depends on some parameters, you fit them to the observations, and then you have the masses.

This way, you can say: OK, we have everything we need. Why still doing that once we have the masses? You can say that we need more accuracy, but once a spacecraft tours around the planet, it gives you all the data you need, doesn’t it? Including astrometric positions, and direct measurements of the masses.

My answer to that is:

  1. A spacecraft covers a pretty limited time span. You would need observations outside of that range, even less accurate, to detect a drift between the dynamical model and the real motion. And that drift would mean that something significant is not in the model, or maybe it is, but not accurately enough.
  2. And this comes to my second argument: the dissipative processes, especially the tides. During centuries we could consider that celestial mechanics was a conservative discipline, in the sense that there was no dissipation to consider. Of course, we knew there was some dissipation, otherwise it is physically irrelevant, but that dissipation was so small that at that time you could safely neglect it. Not any more.

Let us be more specific about tides. The parent body (Jupiter for the Galilean satellites, Saturn for its satellites, the Sun for the planet) exerted a differential torque on the volume of the small one, which generates stress and strain. In an extreme case, i.e. close enough to the planet (inside what we call the Roche limit), bodies can be destroyed (and this gives you the rings of Saturn).
For the classical satellites of the giant planets, the dissipation appears as volcanoes on Io, fractures on Europa, geysers on Enceladus. And in ephemerides (i.e. orbital motion) the induced energy losses result in secular (i.e. a very slow drift) migration over the ages. And we are now accurate enough to detect this tidal effect on the Moon, and in the systems of Jupiter and Saturn.

Numbers regarding this effect tell us how the planetary material reacts to solicitations, and permits us to extrapolate the migration, i.e. know the past and future of these systems.

Now let us go back to techniques of astrometry.

Absolute and relative astrometry

When you measure the coordinates of a celestial body, you need an origin, i.e. a zero, which is a reference. But the reference is usually not present in your field of view, which is limited (one degree is a huge field).
Fortunately, we can use the background stars as references. The stars are catalogued with their coordinates, and so if you have e.g. 20 catalogued stars in your field, then you have 20 points, which you know the coordinates. And this gives you the coordinates of the other points, i.e. the Solar System bodies.
Making catalogues of stars is not an easy task. ESA’s space observatory Gaia is on it!

Artist's impression of Gaia. © ESA
Artist’s impression of Gaia. © ESA

Differential astrometry is an alternative: for instance if you work on the natural satellites of a given system (let us say the Galilean satellites of Jupiter), it could be enough to know where the satellites are with respect to the other ones and to the parent planet. So, you make differential astrometry: you measure the difference between the coordinates of two given bodies.

As I told you, it is a little more complicated than just taking a picture. You must do it properly. Let us see that now.

Many observational difficulties

Of course, your sky should be clear. But this is not enough. When you take two pictures of an object, which does not move, will they put you the object at the same location? Not necessarily! Because of the seeing, which is due to the wind (the atmosphere), and which kind of noises your images. But this is not enough: you are not sure that all of the pixels of your camera have the same response. Of course they should… if only they could… You always have instrumental problems. You can partially compensate that by making a flat fielding, i.e. you take an image of a starless field (for instance before opening the dome) and this gives you the response of the sensors.
Another problem comes from the fact, that these bodies are not dots. You need to know where the center of mass is… which is not the center of figure, because of a phase effect. When you look at the Moon, it is usually not the full Moon, since part of it is in the umbra… the same happens for the other bodies. Beside this, there are problems due to the anisotropy of the reflection of the light on the surfaces of the satellites.

And let me finally mention timing problems: you do measure a position at a given time. But you need to be exact on that time! If not, then your measurement is inaccurate. In other words, you need to care for errors in positions and in time. If you record your images with a laptop, the internal clock may drift by several seconds. I can tell you that from my experience. So, you have to check it constantly. You can have an accurate clock with GPS systems.

I hope you are now convinced that astrometry is truly a science.

The mutual approximation technique

Other astrometry techniques than taking pictures exist. For instance, you can look for occultations: when an asteroid occultates a star, you do not see the star anymore. Since you know where the star is, you know where the asteroid was during the occultation. This technique also permits to get clues on the shape of the asteroid, with multiple observations, and sometimes even detect asteroids and rings. See here.

In the specific case of this study, the authors developed a technique, which is based on the timing of a minimum of the apparent distance between the two satellites. When two satellites are close to each other in the sky (I mean, in projection onto the celestial sphere), you reach a so-called precision premium, i.e. you optimize the accuracy of the measurements. The reason is that your measurement does not suffer from the field distortion. The two dots are so close that you have the same problems for both. So, the differential measurement is not affected.

Here, the authors measure the timing of the minimum of distance, from which they can determine a position, knowing the relative motion of the satellites from the available orbital theories (the ephemerides). Measuring this instant is not trivial, since actually it has no reason to correspond exactly to a recorded data. So, you take a series of images, on all of them you measure the distance, you plot it with respect to the date. And then you fit a polynomial function to the obtained data; the instant you measure corresponds to the minimum of your polynomial.

The authors published this technique two years ago, and this paper present a campaign of observations.

The observation campaign

The authors observed 66 different mutual approximations, from 6 different sites, which are

    • Itajubá (Minas Gerais, Brazil), equipped with a 60-cm telescope,
    • Foz do Iguaçu (Paraná, Brazil), equipped with a 28-cm telescope,
    • Guaratinguetá (São Paulo, Brazil), equipped with a 40-cm telescope,
    • Vitória (Espiríto Santo, Brazil), equipped with a 35-cm telescope,
    • Curitiba (Paraná, Brazil), equipped with a 25-cm telescope,
    • and the Observatoire de Haute-Provence (France), equipped with a 120-cm telescope.

These facilities permitted the determination of 104 central instants, which obviously means that some events, in fact 28 of them, were observed at least twice, i.e. from different sites. All of these telescopes were equipped with a narrow-band filter centered at 889 nanometers. This eliminates the light pollution by Jupiter.

Very accurate results

The authors get a mean accuracy of 11.3 mas (milli-arcseconds), which is ten times more accurate than classical observations. A good way to determine this accuracy is by a statistical comparison between the measurements, and the numbers predicted by the theory.
At this distance, i.e. the distance to Jupiter, 11.3 mas means 40 km, which is much smaller than the radii of these satellites (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto).

So, you see, this is a very promising technique, and supplementing the database of astrometric observations with such high-quality data can only lead to new discoveries.

The study and its authors

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

Heating the subsurface oceans

Hi there! You may have heard that subsurface oceans have been hinted / discovered / confirmed for some major satellites of Jupiter and Saturn. What if bacteriological life existed there? Wait a minute… it is too early to speak about that. But anyway, these oceans are interesting, and the study I present you today, i.e. Ocean tidal heating in icy satellites with solid shells, by Isamu Matsuyama et al., discusses the response of these oceans to the tidal heating, in considering the icy shell coating the oceans. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

Ocean worlds in the Solar System

First of all, let us see how you can have a subsurface ocean. The main satellites of our giant planets are in general frozen worlds, where the heaviest elements have migrated to the center. As a consequence, the surface is essentially water ice. If you go a little deeper, i.e. some kilometers below the surface, then you increase the pressure and the temperature, and you meet conditions under which liquid water may survive. This is why large and mid-sized satellites may support a global, subsurface ocean. Let us see now the direct and indirect detections

Certain: Titan

Titan is the largest satellite of Saturn, and is hinted since at least 30 years to have a global ocean. The spacecraft Cassini-Huygens has provided enough data to confirm this assumption, i.e.

  • The detection of a so-called Schumann resonance in the atmosphere of Titan, i.e. an electromagnetic resonance, which could be excited by a rotating magnetosphere, which would itself be generated by a global liquid layer, i.e. an ocean,
  • the obliquity of the surface of Titan, i.e. 0.3°, is thrice too large for a body in which no ocean would decouple the surface from the core,
  • the variations of the gravity field of Titan, which are contained in a so-called tidal Love number k2, are too large for an oceanless body.
Mosaic of Titan, due to Cassini. © NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho
Mosaic of Titan, due to Cassini. © NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho
Certain: Europa

Europa has been visited by the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. Galileo revealed in particular

  • a fractured surface (see featured image), which means a pretty thin crust, and an ocean beneath it,
  • a significant magnetic field, due to a subsurface conductive layer, i.e. an ocean.
Certain: Ganymede

Ganymede has a strong magnetic field as well. Observations by the Hubble Space Telescope revealed in 2015 that the motion of auroras on Ganymede is a signature of that magnetic field as well, i.e. the internal ocean. Theoretical studies in fact suggest that there could be several oceanic layers, which alternate with water ice.

Ganymede seen by Galileo. © NASA / JPL / DLR
Ganymede seen by Galileo. © NASA / JPL / DLR
Certain: Enceladus

We can see geysers at the surface of Enceladus, which reveal liquid water below the surface. In particular, we know that Enceladus has a diapir at its South Pole. Cassini has proven by its gravity data that the ocean is in fact global.

Enceladus seen by Cassini. © NASA/JPL
Enceladus seen by Cassini. © NASA/JPL
Suspected: Dione

A recent theoretical study, led by Mikael Beuthe who also co-authors the present one, shows that Dione could not support its present topography if there were no subsurface ocean below the crust. The same methodology applied on Enceladus gives the same conclusion. In some sense, this validated the method.

Dione seen by Cassini. © NASA
Dione seen by Cassini. © NASA
Suspected: Callisto

Measurements by Galileo suggest that the magnetic field of Jupiter does not penetrate into Callisto, which suggests a conductive layer, i.e. once more, an ocean.

Callisto seen by Galileo. © NASA
Callisto seen by Galileo. © NASA
Suspected: Pluto

Pluto exhibits a white heart, Sputnik Planitia, which frozen material might originate from a subsurface ocean.

Pluto seen by New Horizons. ©NASA/APL/SwRI
Pluto seen by New Horizons. ©NASA/APL/SwRI
Doubtful: Mimas

Mimas is the innermost of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn. It is often compared to the Death Star of Star Wars, because of its large crater, Herschel. The surface of Mimas appears old, i.e. craterized, and frozen, so no heating is to be expected to sustain an ocean. However, recent measurements of the diurnal librations of Mimas, i.e. its East-West oscillations, give too large numbers. This could be the signature of an ocean.

Mimas seen by Cassini. © NASA
Mimas seen by Cassini. © NASA

Other oceanic worlds may exist, in particular among the satellites of Uranus and Neptune.

Tidal heating

Tides are the heating of a body by another, massive one, due to the variations of its gravitational action. For natural satellites, the tides are almost entirely due to the parent planet. The variations of the gravitational attraction over the volume of the satellite, and their time variations, generate stress and strain which deform and heat the satellite. The time-averaged tide will generate an equilibrium shape, which is a triaxial ellipsoid, while the time variations heat it.
The time variations of the tides are due to the variations of the distance between a satellite element and the planet. And for satellites, which rotate synchronously, two elements rule these variations of distance: the orbital eccentricity, and the obliquity.

For solid layers, rheological models give laws ruling the tidal response. However, the problem is more complex for fluid layers.

Waves are generated in the ocean

In a fluid, you have waves, which transport energy. In other words, you must considerate them when you estimate the heating. The authors considered two classes of waves:

  1. Gravity waves: when a body moves on its orbit, the ocean moves, but the gravity of the body acts as a restoring force. This way, it generates gravity waves.
  2. Rossby-Haurwitz waves: these waves are generated by the rotation of the body, which itself is responsible for the Coriolis force.

A wave has a specific velocity, wavelength, period… and if you excite it at a period which is close to its natural period of oscillation, then you will generate a resonant amplification of the response, i.e. your wave will meet a peak of energy.

All this illustrates the complexity of resolving such a problem.

The physical model

Solving this problem requires to write down the equations ruling the dynamics of the fluid ocean. The complete equations are the Navier-Stokes equations. Here the authors used the Laplace tidal equations instead, which derive from Navier-Stokes in assuming a thin ocean. This dynamics depends on drag coefficients, which can only be estimated, and which will rule the dissipation of energy in the oceans.
Once the equations are written down, the solutions are decomposed as spectral modes, i.e. as sums of periodic contributions, which amplitudes and phases are calculated separately. This requires to model the shapes of the satellites as sums of spherical harmonics, i.e. as sums of ideal shapes, from the sphere to more and more distorted ones. And the shapes of the two boundaries of the ocean are estimated from the whole gravity of the body. As you may understand, I do not want to enter into specifics…
Let us go to the results instead.

The response of the oceans may be measured

The authors applied their model to Europa and Enceladus. They find that eccentricity tides give a higher amplitude of deformation, but the obliquity tides give a higher phase lag, because the the Rossby-Haurwitz waves, that the eccentricity tides do not produce. For instance, and here I cite the abstract of the paper If Europa’s shell and ocean are respectively 10 and 100 km thick, the tide amplitude and phase lag are 26.5 m and <1° for eccentricity forcing, and <2.5 m and <18° for obliquity forcing. The expected NASA mission Europa Clipper should be able to detect such effects. However, no space mission is currently planned for Enceladus.

I have a personal comment: for Mimas, a phase lag in libration of 6° has been measured. Could it be due an internal ocean? This probably requires a specific study.

The study and its authors

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

Fracturing the crust of an icy satellite

Hi there! You may know that the space missions to the systems of giant planets have revealed that the surface of several of theirs satellites are fractured. We dispose of images of such structures on Jupiter’s Europa and Ganymede, Saturn’s Enceladus (the famous tiger stripes at its South Pole), and even on Uranus’ Miranda, which has been visited by Voyager II. These satellites are thought to be icy bodies, with an icy crust enshrouding a subsurface, global ocean (maybe not for Miranda, but certainly true for the other guys).

The study I present you today, Experimental constraints on the fatigue of icy satellite lithospheres by tidal forces, by Noah P. Hammond, Amy C. Barr, Reid F. Cooper, Tess E. Caswell, and Greg Hirth, has recently been accepted for publication in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The authors particularly tried to produce in labs the process of fatigue, which would weaken a material after a certain number of solicitations, i.e. it would become easier to break.

Cycloids on Europa

The Galilean satellite of Jupiter Europa may be the most interesting satellite to focus on, since it is the most fractured, at least to the best of our knowledge. The observation of the surface of Europa, first by Voyager I and II in 1979, and after by Galileo between 1995 and 2003, revealed many structures, like lineae, i.e. cracks, due to the geophysical activity of the satellite. This body is so active that only few craters are visible, the surface having been intensively renewed since the impacts. Something particularly appealing on Europa is that some of these lineae present a cycloidal pattern, which would reveal a very small drift of the orientation of the surface. Some interpret it has an evidence of super-synchronous rotation of Europa, i.e. its rotation would not be exactly synchronous with its orbital motion around Jupiter.

Cycloids on Europa, seen by the spacecraft Galileo. © NASA
Cycloids on Europa, seen by the spacecraft Galileo. © NASA

Beside Europa, fractures have also been observed on Ganymede, but with less frequency. For having such fractures, you need the surface to be brittle enough, so that stress will fracture it. This is a way to indirectly detect a subsurface ocean. But you also need the stress. And this is where tides intervene.

Fractures on Ganymede. © Paul M. Schenk
Fractures on Ganymede. © Paul M. Schenk

Tides can stress the surface

You can imagine that Jupiter exerts a huge gravitational action on Europa. But Europa is not that small, and its finite size results in a difference of Jovian attraction between the point which is the closest to Jupiter, and the furthest one. The result of this differential attraction is stress and strain in the satellite. The response of the satellite will depend on its structure.

A problem is that calculations suggest that the tidal stress may be too weak to generate alone the observed fractures. This is why the authors suggest the assistance of another phenomenon: fatigue crack growth.

The phenomenon of fatigue crack growth

The picture is pretty intuitive: if you want to break something… let’s say a spoon. You twist it, bend it, wring it… once, twice, thrice, more… Pretty uneasy, but you do not give up, because you see that the material is weakening. And finally it breaks. Yes you did it! But what happened? You slowly created microcracks in the spoon, which weakened it, the cracks grew… until the spoon broke.

For geophysical materials, it works pretty much the same: we should imagine that the tides, which vary over an orbit since the eccentricity of the orbit induces variations of the Jupiter-Europa distance, slowly create microcracks, which then grow, until the cracks are visible. To test this scenario, the authors ran lab experiments.

Lab experiments

The lab experiments consisted of Brazil Tests, i.e. compression of circular disks of ice along their diameter between curved steel plates. The resulting stress was computed everywhere in the disk thanks to a finite-element software named Abaqus, and the result was analyzed with acoustic emissions, which reflections would reveal the presence of absence of microcracks in the disk. The authors ran two types of tests: both with cyclic loading, i.e. oscillating loading, but one with constant amplitude, and the other one with increasing amplitude, i.e. a maximum loading becoming stronger and stronger.

But wait: how to reproduce the conditions of the real ice of these satellites? Well, there are things you cannot do in the lab. Among the problems are: the exact composition of the ice, the temperature, and the excitation frequency.

The authors conducted the experiments in assuming pure water ice. The temperature could be below 150 K (-123°C, or -189°F), which is very challenging in a lab, and the main period of excitation is the orbital one, i.e. 3.5 day… If you want to reproduce 100,000 loading cycles, you should wait some 1,000 years… unfeasible…

The authors bypassed these two problems in constraining the product frequency times viscosity to be valid, the viscosity itself depending on the temperature. This resulted in an excitation period of 1 second, and temperatures between 198 and 233 K (-75 to -40°C, or -103 to -40°F). The temperature was maintained thanks to a liquid nitrogen-cooled, ethanol bath cryostat.

And now the results!

No fatigue observed

Indeed, the authors observed no fatigue, i.e. no significant microcracks were detected, which would have altered the material enough, to weaken it. This prompted the authors to discuss the application of their experiments for understanding the crust of the real satellites, and they argue that fatigue could be possible anyway.

Why fatigue may still be possible

As the authors recall, these experiments are not the first ones. Other authors have had a negative result with pure water ice. However, fatigue has been detected on sea ice, which could mean that the presence of salt favors fatigue. And the water ice of icy satellite may not be pure. Salt and other chemical elements may be present. So, even if these experiments did not reveal fatigue, there may be some anyway.

But the motivation for investigating fatigue is that a process was needed to assist the tides to crack the surface. Why necessarily fatigue? Actually, other processes may weaken the material.

How to fracture without fatigue

The explanation is like the most (just a matter of taste) is impacts: when you impact the surface, you break it, which necessarily weakens it. And we know that impacts are ubiquitous in the Solar System. In case of an impact, a megaregolith is created, which is more likely to get fractured. The authors also suggest that the tides may be assisted, at least for Europa, by the super-synchronous rotation possibly suggested by the geometry of the lineae (remember, the cycloids). Another possibility is the large scale inhomogeneities in the surface, which could weaken it at some points.

Anyway, it is a fact that these surfaces are fractured, and the exact explanation for that is still in debate!

The study and its authors

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

Resurfacing Ganymede

Hi there! After Europa last week, I tell you today on the next Galilean satellite, which is Ganymede. It is the largest planetary satellite in the Solar System, and it presents an interesting surface, i.e. with different terrains showing evidence of past activity. This is the opportunity for me to present you Viscous relaxation as a prerequisite for tectonic resurfacing on Ganymede: Insights from numerical models of lithospheric extension, by Michael T. Bland and William B. McKinnon. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The satellite Ganymede

Ganymede is the third, by its distance to the planet, of the 4 Galilean satellites of Jupiter. It was discovered with the 3 other ones in January 1610 by Galileo Galilei. These are indeed large bodies, which means that they could host planetary activity. Io is known for its volcanoes, and Europa and Ganymede (maybe Callisto as well) are thought to harbour a global, subsurfacic ocean. The table below lists their size and orbital properties, which you can compare with the 5th satellite, Amalthea.

Semimajor axis Eccentricity Inclination Radius
J-1 Io 5.90 Rj 0.0041 0.036° 1821.6 km
J-2 Europa 9.39 Rj 0.0094 0.466° 1560.8 km
J-3 Ganymede 14.97 Rj 0.0013 0.177° 2631.2 km
J-4 Callisto 26.33 Rj 0.0074 0.192° 2410.3 km
J-5 Amalthea 2.54 Rj 0.0032 0.380° 83.45 km

We have images of the surface of Ganymede thanks to the spacecraft Voyager 1 & 2, and Galileo. These missions have revealed different types of terrains, darker and bright, some impacted, some pretty smooth, some showing grooves… “pretty smooth” should be taken with care, since the feeling of smoothness depends on the resolution of the images, which itself depends on the distance between the spacecraft and the surface, when this specific surface element was directed to the spacecraft.

Dark terrain in Galileo Regio. © NASA
Dark terrain in Galileo Regio. © NASA
Bright terrain with grooves and a crater. © NASA
Bright terrain with grooves and a crater. © NASA

A good way to date a terrain is to count the craters. It appears that the dark terrains are probably older than the bright ones, which means that a process renewed the surface. The question this paper addresses is: which one(s)?

Marius Regio and Nippur Sulcus. © NASA
Marius Regio and Nippur Sulcus. © NASA

Resurfacing a terrain

These four mechanisms permit to renew a terrain from inside:

  • Band formation: The lithosphere, i.e. the surface, is fractured, and material from inside takes its place. This phenomenon is widely present on Europa, and probably exists on Ganymede.
  • Viscoelastic relaxation: When the crust has some elasticity, it naturally smooths. As a consequence, craters tend to disappear. Of course, this phenomenon is a long-term process. It requires the material to be hot enough.
  • Cryovolcanism: It is like volcanism, but with the difference that the ejected material is mainly composed of water, instead of molten rock. Part of the ejected material falls on the surface.
  • Tectonics: Extensional of compressional deformations of the lithosphere. This is the phenomenon, which is studied here.

Beside these processes, I did not mention the impacts on the surface, and the erosion, which is expected to be negligible on Ganymede.

The question the authors addressed is: could tectonic resurfacing be responsible for some of the actually observed terrains on Ganymede?

Numerical simulations

To answer this question, the authors used the numerical tool, more precisely the 2-D code Tekton. 2-D means that the deformations below the surface are not explicitly simulated. Tekton is a viscoelastic-plastic finite element code, which means that the surface is divided into small areas (finite elements), and their locations are simulated with respect to the time, under the influence of a deforming cause, here an extensional deformation.

The authors used two kinds of data, that we would call initial conditions for numerical simulations: simulated terrains, and real ones.
The simulated terrains are fictitious topographies, varying by the amplitude and frequency of deformation. The deformations are seen as waves, the wavelength being the distance between two peaks. A smooth terrain can be described by long-wavelength topography, while a rough one will have short wavelength.
The real terrains are Digital Terrain Models, extracted from spacecraft data.

The authors also considered different properties of the material, like the elasticity, or the cohesion.

A new scenario of resurfacing

It results from the simulations that the authors can reproduce smooth terrains with grooves, starting from already smooth terrains without grooves. However, extensional tectonics alone cannot remove the craters. In other words, if you can identify craters at the surface of Ganymede, after millions of years of extensional tectonics you will still observe them. To make smooth terrains, you need the assistance of another process, the viscoelastic relaxation of the lithosphere being an interesting candidate.

This pushed the authors to elaborate a new scenario of resurfacing of Ganymede, involving different processes.
They consider that the dark terrains are actually the eldest ones, having remaining intact. However, there was indeed tectonic resurfacism of the bright terrains, which formed grooved. But the deformation of the lithosphere was accompanied by an elevation of the temperature (which is not simulated by Tekton), which itself made the terrain more elastic. This elasticity itself relaxed the craters.

Anyway, you need elasticity (viscoelasticity is actually more accurate, since you have energy dissipation), and for that you need an elevation of the local temperature. This may have been assisted by heating due to internal processes.

In the future

Ganymede is the main target of the ESA mission JUICE, which should orbit it 2030. We expect a big step in our knowledge of Ganymede. For this specific problem, we will have a much better resolution of the whole surface, the gravity field of the body (which is related to the interior), maybe a magnetic field, which would constrain the subsurface ocean and the depth of the crust enshrouding it, and the Love number, which indicates the deformation of the gravity field by the tidal excitation of Jupiter. This last quantity contains information on the interior, but it is related to the whole body, not specifically to the structure. I doubt that we would have an accurate knowledge of the viscoelasticity of the crust. Moreover, the material properties which created the current terrains may be not the current ones; in particular the temperature of Ganymede is likely to have varied over the ages. We know for example that this temperature is partly due to the decay of radiogenic elements shortly after the formation of the satellite. During this heating, the satellite stratifies, which alters the tidal response to the gravitational excitation of Jupiter, and which itself heats the satellite. This tidal response is also affected by the obliquity of Ganymede, by its eccentricity, which is now damped… So, the temperature is neither constant, nor homogeneous. There will still be room for theoretical studies and new models.

The study and its authors

And 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.

Plate tectonics on Europa?

Hi there! Jupiter has 4 large satellites, known as Galilean satellites since they were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. Among them is Europa, which ocean is a priority target for the search for extraterrestrial life. Many clues have given us the certainty that this satellite has a global ocean under its icy surface, and it should be the target of a future NASA mission, Europa Clipper. Meanwhile it will also be visited by the European mission JUICE, before orbital insertion around Ganymede. Since Europa presents evidences of tectonic activity, the study I present you today, i.e. Porosity and salt content determine if subduction can occur in Europa’s ice shell, by Brandon Johnson et al., wonders whether subduction is possible when two plates meet. This study has been conducted at Brown University, Providence, RI (USA).

Subduction on Earth

I guess you know about place tectonics on Earth. The crust of the Earth is made of several blocks, which drift. As a consequence, they collide, and this may be responsible for the creation of mountains, for earthquakes… Subduction is a peculiar kind of collision, in which one plate goes under the one it meets, just because their densities are significantly different. The lighter plate goes up, while the heavier one goes down. This is what happens on the west coast of South America, where the subduction of the oceanic Nazca Plate and the Antarctic Plate have created the Andean mountains on the South America plate, which is a continental one.

Even if our Earth is unique in the Solar System by many aspects, it is highly tempting to use our knowledge of it to try to understand the other bodies. This is why the authors simulated the conditions favorable to subduction on Europa.

The satellite Europa

Europa is the smallest of the four Galilean satellites of Jupiter. It orbits Jupiter in 3.55 days at a mean distance of 670,000 km, on an almost circular and planar orbit. It has been visited by the spacecraft Pioneer 10 & 11 in 1973-1974, then by Voyager 1 & 2 in 1979. But our knowledge of Europa is mostly due to the spacecraft Galileo, which orbited Jupiter between 1995 and 2003. It revealed long, linear cracks and ridges, interrupted by disrupted terrains. The presence of these structures indicates a weakness of the surface, and argues for the presence of a subsurface ocean below the icy crust. Another argument is the tidal heating of Jupiter, which means that Europa should be hot enough to sustain this ocean.
This active surface shows extensional tectonic feature, which suggests plate motion, and raises the question: is subduction possible?

Numerical simulations of the phenomenon

To determine whether subduction is possible, the authors performed one-dimensional finite-elements simulations of the evolution of a subducted slab, to determine whether it would remain below another plate or not. The equation is: would the ocean be buoyant? If yes, then the slab cannot subduct, because it would be too light for that.

The author considered the time and spatial evolution of the slab, i.e. over its length and over the ages. They tested the effect of

  1. The porosity: Planetary ices are porous material, but we do not know to what extent. In particular, at some depth the material is more compressed, i.e. less porous than at the surface, but it is not easy to put numbers behind this phenomenon. Which means that the porosity is a parameter. The porosity is defined as a fraction of the volume of voids over the total volume investigated. Here, total volume should not be understood as the total volume of Europa, but as a volume of material enshrouding the material element you consider. This allows you to define a local porosity, which thus varies in Europa. Only the porosity of the icy crust is addressed here.
  2. The salt content: the subsurface ocean and the icy crust are not pure ice, but are salty, which affects their densities. The authors assumed that the salt of Europa is mostly natron, which is a mixture essentially made of sodium carbonate decahydrate and sodium bicarbonate. Importantly, the icy shell has probably some lateral density variations, i.e. the fraction of salt is probably not homogeneous, which gives room for local phenomenons.
  3. The crust thickness: barely constrained, it could be larger than 100 km.
  4. The viscosity: how does the material react to a subducting slab? This behavior depends on the temperature, which is modeled here with the Fourier law of heat,
  5. The spreading rate, i.e. the velocity of the phenomenon,
  6. The geometry of the slab, in particular the bending radius, and the dip angle.

And once you have modeled and simulated all this, the computer tells you under which conditions subduction is possible.

Yes, it is possible

The first result is that the two critical parameters are the porosity and the salt content, which means that the conditions for subduction can be expressed with respect to these two quantities.
Regarding the conditions for subduction, let me quote the abstract of the paper: If salt contents are laterally homogeneous, and Europa has a reasonable surface porosity of 0.1, the conductive portion of Europa’s shell must have salt contents exceeding ~22% for subduction to occur. However, if salt contents are laterally heterogeneous, with salt contents varying by a few percent, subduction may occur for a surface porosity of 0.1 and overall salt contents of ~5%.

A possible subduction does not mean that subduction happens. For that, you need a cause, which would trigger activity in the satellite.

Triggering the subduction

The authors propose the following two causes for subduction to happen:

  1. Tidal interaction with Jupiter, enhanced by non-synchronous rotation: Surface features revealed by Galileo are consistent with a crust which would not rotate synchronously, as expected for the natural satellites, but slightly faster, the departure from supersynchronicity inducing a full rotation with respect to the Jupiter-Europa direction between 12,000 and 250,000 years… to be compared with an orbital period of 3.55 days. So, this is a very small departure, which would enhance the tidal torque of Jupiter, and trigger some activity. This interpretation of the surface features as a super-synchronous rotation is controversial.
  2. Convection, i.e. fluid motion in the ocean, due to the variations of temperature.

No doubt Europa Clipper and maybe JUICE will tell us more!

The study and its authors

And 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.