Category Archives: Satellites of Saturn

The fate of the Alkyonides

Hello everybody! Today, I will tell you on the dynamics of the Alkyonides. You know the Alkyonides? No? OK… There are very small satellites of Saturn, i.e. kilometer-sized, which orbit pretty close to the rings, but outside. These very small bodies are known to us thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, and a recent study, which I present you today, has investigated their long-term evolution, in particular their stability. Are they doomed or not? How long can they survive? You will know this and more after reading this presentation of Long-term evolution and stability of Saturnian small satellites: Aegaeon, Methone, Anthe, and Pallene, by Marco Muñoz-Gutiérrez and Silvia Giuliatti Winter. This study has recently been accepted for publication in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The Alkyonides

As usually in planetary sciences, bodies are named after the Greek mythology, which is the case of the four satellites discussed today. But I must admit that I cheat a little: I present them as Alkyonides, while Aegeon is actually a Hecatoncheires. The Alkyonides are the 7 daughters of Alcyoneus, among them are Anthe, Pallene, and Methone.

Here are some of there characteristics:

Methone Pallene Anthe Aegaeon
Semimajor axis 194,402 km 212,282 km 196,888 km 167,425 km
Eccentricity 0 0.004 0.0011 0.0002
Inclination 0.013° 0.001° 0.015° 0.001°
Diameter 2.9 km 4.4 km 2 km 0.66 km
Orbital period 24h14m 27h42m 24h52m 19h24m
Discovery 2004 2004 2007 2009

For comparison, Mimas orbits Saturn at 185,000 km, and the outer edge of the A Ring, i.e. of the main rings of Saturn, is at 137,000 km. So, we are in the close system of Saturn, but exterior to the rings.

Discovery of Anthe, aka S/2007 S4. Copyright: NASA.
Discovery of Anthe, aka S/2007 S4. Copyright: NASA.

These bodies are in mean-motion resonances with main satellites of Saturn, more specifically:

  • Methone orbits near the 15:14 MMR with Mimas,
  • Pallene is close to the 19:16 MMR with Enceladus,
  • Anthe orbits near the 11:10 MMR with Mimas,
  • Aegaeon is in the 7:6 MMR with Mimas.

As we will see, these resonances have a critical influence on the long-term stability.

Rings and arcs

Beside the main and well-known rings of Saturn, rings and arcs of dusty material orbit at other locations, but mostly in the inner system (with the exception of the Phoebe ring). In particular, the G Ring is a 9,000 km wide faint ring, which inner edge is at 166,000 km… Yep, you got it: Aegaeon is inside. Some even consider it is a G Ring object.

Methone and Anthe have dusty arcs associated with them. The difference between an arc and a ring is that an arc is longitudinally bounded, i.e. it is not extended enough to constitute a ring. The Methone arc extends over some 10°, against 20° for the Anthe arc. The material composing them is assumed to be ejecta from Methone and Anthe, respectively.

However, Pallene has a whole ring, constituted from ejecta as well.

Why sometimes a ring, and sometimes an arc? Well, it tell us something on the orbital stability of small particles in these areas. Imagine you are a particle: you are kicked from home, i.e. your satellite, but you remain close to it… for some time. Actually you drift slowly. While you drift, you are somehow shaken by the gravitational action of the other satellites, which disturb your Keplerian orbit around the planet. If you are shaken enough, then you may leave the system of Saturn. If you are not, then you can finally be anywhere on the orbit of your satellite, and since you are not the only one to have been ejected (you feel better, don’t you?), then you and your colleagues will constitute a whole ring. If you are lucky enough, you can end up on the satellite.

The longer the arc (a ring is a 360° arc), the more stable the region.

Frequency diffusion

The authors studied

  1. the stability of the dusty particles over 18 years
  2. the stability of the satellites in the system of Saturn over several hundreds of kilo-years (kyr).

For the stability of the particles, they computed the frequency diffusion index. It consists in:

  1. Simulating the motion of the particles over 18 years,
  2. Determining the main frequency of the dynamics over the first 9 years, and over the last 9 ones,
  3. Comparing these two numbers. The smaller the difference, the more stable you are.

The numerical simulations is something I have addressed in previous posts: you use a numerical integrator to simulate the motion of the particle, in considering an oblate Saturn, the oblateness being mostly due to the rings, and several satellites. Our four guys, and Janus, Epimetheus, Mimas, Enceladus, and Tethys.

How resonances destabilize an orbit

When a planetary body is trapped in a mean-motion resonance, there is an angle, which is an integer combination of angles present in its dynamics and in the dynamics of the other body, which librates. An example is the MMR Aegaeon-Mimas, which causes the angle 7λMimas-6λAegaeonMimas to librate. λ is the mean longitude, and ϖ is the longitude of the pericentre. Such a resonance is supposed to affect the dynamics of the two satellites but, given their huge mass ratio (Mimas is between 300 and 500 millions times heavier than Aegaeon), only Aegaeon is affected. The resonance is at a given location, and Aegaeon stays there.
But a given resonance has some width, and several resonant angles (we say arguments) are associated with a resonance ratio. As a consequence, several resonances may overlap, and in that case … my my my…
The small body is shaken between different locations, its eccentricity and / or inclination can be raised, until being dynamically unstable…
And in this particular region of the system of Saturn, there are many resonances, which means that the stability of the discovered body is not obvious. This is why the authors studied it.


Stability of the dusty particles

The authors find that Pallene cannot clear its ring efficiently, despite its size. Actually, this zone is the most stable, wrt the dynamical environments of Anthe, Methone and Aegaeon. However, 25% of the particles constituting the G Ring should collide with Aegaeon in 18 years. This probably means that there is a mechanism, which refills the G Ring.

Stability of the satellites

From long-term numerical simulations over 400 kyr, i.e. more than one hundred millions of orbits, these 4 satellites are stable. For Pallene, the authors guarantee its stability over 64 Myr. Among the 4, this is the furthest satellite from Saturn, which makes it less affected by the resonances.

A perspective

The authors mention as a possible perspective the action of the non-gravitational forces, such as the solar radiation pressure and the plasma drag, which could affect the dynamics of such small bodies. I would like to add another one: the secular tides with Saturn, and the pull of the rings. They would induce drifts of the satellites, and of the resonances associated. The expected order of magnitude of these drifts would be an expansion of the orbits of a few km / tens of km per Myr. This seems pretty small, but not that small if we keep in mind that two resonances affecting Methone are separated by 4 km only.

This means that further results are to be expected in the upcoming years. The Cassini mission is close to its end, scheduled for 15 Sep 2017, but we are not done with exploiting its results!

To know more…

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.

On the interior of Mimas, aka the Death Star

Hi there! Today I will tell you on the interior of Mimas. You know, Mimas, this pretty small, actually the smallest of the mid-sized, satellite of Saturn, which has a big crater, like Star Wars’ Death Star. Despite an inactive appearance, it presents confusing orbital quantities, which could suggest interesting characteristics. This is the topic of the study I present you today, by Marc Neveu and Alyssa Rhoden, entitled The origin and evolution of a differentiated Mimas, which has recently been published in Icarus.

Mimas’ facts

The system of Saturn is composed of different groups of satellites. You have

  • Very small satellites embedded into the rings,
  • Mid-sized satellites orbiting between the rings and the orbit of Titan
  • The well-known Titan, which is very large,
  • Small irregular satellites, which orbit very far from Saturn and are probably former asteroids, which had been trapped by Saturn,
  • Others (to make sure I do not forget anybody, including the coorbital satellites of Tethys and Dione, Hyperion, the Alkyonides, Phoebe…).

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, Mimas is the innermost of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn. It orbits it in less than one day, and has strong interactions with the rings.

Semimajor axis 185,520 km
Eccentricity 0.0196
Inclination 1.57°
Diameter 396.4 km
Orbital period 22 h 36 min

As we can see, Mimas has a significant eccentricity and a significant inclination. This inclination could be explained by a mean-motion resonance with Tethys (see here). However, we see no obvious cause for its present eccentricity. It could be due to a past gravitational excitation by another satellite.

Mimas, seen by Cassini. We can the crater Herschel, which makes Mimas look like Star Wars' Death Star. Credit: NASA
Mimas, seen by Cassini. We can the crater Herschel, which makes Mimas look like Star Wars' Death Star. Credit: NASA

The literature is not unanimous on the formation of Mimas. It was long thought that the satellites of Saturn formed simultaneously with the planet and the rings, in the proto-Saturn nebula. The Cassini space mission changed our view of this system, and other scenarios were proposed. For instance, the mid-sized satellites of Saturn could form from the collisions between 4 big progenitors, Titan being the last survivor of them. The most popular explanation seems to be that a very large body impacted Saturn, its debris coalesced into the rings, and then particles in the rings accreted, forming satellites which then migrated outward… these satellites being the mid-sized satellites, i.e. Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas. This scenario would mean that Mimas would be the youngest of them, and that it formed differentiated, i.e. that the proto-Mimas was made of pretty heavy elements, on which lighter elements accreted. Combining observations of Mimas with theoretical studies of its long-term evolution could help to determine which of these scenarios is the right one… if there is a right one. Such studies can of course involve other satellites, but this one is essentially on Mimas, with a discussion on Enceladus at the end.

The rotation of Mimas

As most of the natural satellites of the giant planets, Mimas is synchronous, i.e. it shows the same face to Saturn, its rotational (spin) period being on average equal to its orbital one. “On average” means that there are some variations. These are actually a sum of periodic oscillations, which are due to the variations of the distance Mimas-Saturn. And from the amplitude and phase of these variations, you can deduce something on the interior, i.e. how the mass is distributed. This could for instance reveal an internal ocean, or something else…

This rotation has been measured in 2014 (see this press release). The mean rotation is indeed synchronous, and here are its oscillations:

Period Measured
amplitude (arcmin)
amplitude (arcmin)
70.56 y 2,616.6 2,631.6±3.0
23.52 y 43.26 44.5±1.1
22.4 h 26.07 50.3±1.0
225.04 d 7.82 7.5±0.8
227.02 d 3.65 2.9±0.9
223.09 d 3.53 3.3±0.8

The most striking discrepancy is at the period 22.4 h, which is the orbital period of Mimas. These oscillations are named diurnal librations, and their amplitude is very sensitive to the interior. Moreover, the amplitude associated is twice the predicted one. This means that the interior, which was hypothesized for the theoretical study, is not a right one, and this detection of an error is a scientific information. It means that Mimas is not exactly how we believed it is.

The authors of the 2014 study, led by Radwan Tajeddine, investigated 5 interior models, which could explain this high amplitude. One of these models considered the influence of the large impact crater Herschel. In all of these models, only 2 could explain this high amplitude: either an internal ocean, or an elongated core of pretty heavy elements. Herschel is not responsible for anything in this amplitude.

The presence of an elongated core would support the formation from the rings. However, the internal ocean would need a source of heating to survive.

Heating Mimas

There are at least three main to heat a planetary body:

  1. hit it to heat it, i.e. an impact could partly melt Mimas, but that would be a very intense and short heating, which would have renewed the surface…nope
  2. decay of radiogenic elements. This would require Mimas to be young enough
  3. tides: i.e. internal friction due to the differential attraction of Saturn. This would be enforced by the variations of the distance Saturn-Mimas, i.e. the eccentricity.

And this is how we arrive to the study: the authors simulated the evolution of the composition of Mimas under radiogenic and tidal heating, in also considering the variations of the orbital elements. Because when a satellite heats, its eccentricity diminishes. Its semimajor axis varies as well, balanced between the dissipation in the satellite and the one in Saturn.

The problems

For a study to be trusted by the scientific community, it should reproduce the observations. This means that the resulting Mimas should be the Mimas we observe. The authors gave themselves 3 observational constraints, i.e. Mimas must

  1. have the right orbital eccentricity,
  2. have the right amplitude of diurnal librations,
  3. keep a cold surface.

and they modeled the time evolution of the structure and the orbital elements using a numerical code, IcyDwarf, which simulates the evolution of the differentiation, i.e. separation between rock and water, porosity, heating, freezing of the ocean if it exists…


The authors show that in any case, the ocean cannot survive. If there would be a source of heating sustaining it, then the eccentricity of Mimas would have damped. In other words, you cannot have the ocean and the eccentricity simultaneously. Depending on the past (unknown) eccentricity of Mimas and the dissipation in Saturn, which is barely known, an ocean could have existed, but not anymore.
As a consequence, Mimas must have an elongated core, coated by an icy shell. The eccentricity could be sustained by the interaction with Saturn. This elongated core could have two origins: either a very early formation of Mimas, which would have given enough time for the differentiation, or a formation from the rings, which would have formed Mimas differentiated.

Finally the authors say that there model does not explain the internal ocean of Enceladus, but Marc Neveu announces on his blog that they have found another explanation, which should be published pretty soon. Stay tuned!

Another mystery

The 2014 study measured a phase shift of 6° in the diurnal librations. This is barely mentioned in the literature, probably because it bothers many people… This is huge, and could be more easily, or less hardly, explained with an internal ocean. I do not mean that Mimas has an internal ocean, because the doubts regarding its survival persist. So, this does not put the conclusions of the authors into question. Anyway, if one day an explanation would be given for this phase lag, that would be warmly welcome!

To know more…

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.

Enceladus lost its balance

Hi there! Today I will present you True polar wander of Enceladus from topographic data, by Tajeddine et al., which has recently been published in Icarus. The idea is this: Enceladus is a satellite of Saturn which has a pretty stable rotation axis. In the past, its rotation axis was already stable, but with a dramatically different orientation, i.e. 55° shifted from the present one! The authors proposed this scenario after having observed the distribution of impact basins at its surface.

Enceladus’s facts

Enceladus is one of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn, it is actually the second innermost of them. It has a mean radius of some 250 km, and orbits around Saturn in 1.37 day, at a distance of ~238,000 km. It is particularly interesting since it presents evidence of past and present geophysical activity. In particular, geysers have been observed by the Cassini spacecraft at its South Pole, and its southern hemisphere presents four pretty linear features known as tiger stripes, which are fractures.

Enceladus seen by Cassini (Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute).
Enceladus seen by Cassini (Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute).

Moreover, analyses of the gravity field of Enceladus, which is a signature of its interior, strongly suggest a global, subsurfacic ocean, and a North-South asymmetry. This asymmetry is consistent with a diapir of water at its South Pole, which would be the origin of the geysers. The presence of the global ocean has been confirmed by measurements of the amplitude of the longitudinal librations of its surface, which are consistent with a a crust, that a global ocean would have partially decoupled from the interior.

The rotation of a planetary satellite

Planetary satellites have a particularly interesting rotational dynamics. Alike our Moon, they show on average always the same face to a fictitious observer, which would observe the satellite from the surface of the parent planet (our Earth for the Moon, Saturn for Enceladus). This means that they have a synchronous rotation, i.e. a rotation which is synchronous with their orbit, but also that the orientation of their spin axis is pretty stable.
And this is the key point here: the spin axis is pretty orthogonal to the orbit (this orientation is called Cassini State 1), and it is very close to the polar axis, which is the axis of largest moment of inertia. This means that we have a condition on the orientation of the spin axis with respect to the orbit, AND with respect to the surface. The mass distribution in the satellite is not exactly spherical, actually masses tend to accumulate in the equatorial plane, more particularly in the satellite-planet direction, because of the combined actions of the rotation of the satellites and the tides raised by the parent planet. This implies a shorter polar axis. And the study I present today proposes that the polar axis has been tilted of 55° in the past. This tilt is called polar wander. This result is suggested by the distribution of the craters at the surface of Enceladus.

Relaxing a crater

The Solar System bodies are always impacted, this was especially true during the early ages of the Solar System. And the inner satellites of Saturn were more impacted than the outer ones, because the mass of Saturn tends to attract the impactors, focusing their trajectories.
As a consequence, Enceladus got heavily impacted, probably pretty homogeneously, i.e. craters were everywhere. And then, over the ages, the crust slowly went back to its original shape, relaxing the craters. The craters became then basins, and eventually some of them disappeared. Some of them, but not all of them.
The process of relaxation is all the more efficient when the material is hot. For material which properties strongly depend on the temperature, a stagnant lid can form below the surface, which would partly preserve it from the heating by convection, and could preserve the craters. This phenomenon appears preferably at equatorial latitudes.
This motivates the quest for basins. A way for that is to measure the topography of the surface.

Modeling the topography

The surface of planetary body can be written as a sum of trigonometric series, known as spherical harmonics, in which the radius would depend on 2 parameters, i.e. the latitude and the longitude. This way, you have the radius at any point of the surface. Classically, two terms are kept, which allow to represent the surface as a triaxial ellipsoid. This is the expected shape from the rotational and tidal deformations. If you want to look at mass anomalies, then you have to go further in the expansion of the formula. But to do that, you need data, i.e. measurements of the radius at given coordinates. And for that, the planetologists dispose of the Cassini spacecraft, which made several flybys of Enceladus, since 2005.
Two kinds of data have been used in this study: limb profiles, and control points.
Limb profiles are observations of the bright edge of an illuminated object, they result in very accurate measurements of limited areas. Control points are features on the surface, detected from images. They can be anywhere of the surface, and permit a global coverage. In this study, the authors used 41,780 points derived from 54 limb profiles, and 6,245 control points.
Measuring the shape is only one example of use of such data. They can also be used to measure the rotation of the body, in comparing several orientations of given features at different dates.
These data permitted the authors to model the topography up to the order 16.

The result

The authors identified a set of pretty aligned basins, which would happen for equatorial basins protected from relaxation by stagnant lid convection. But the problem is this: the orientation of this alignment would need a tilt of 55° of Enceladus to be equatorial! This is why the authors suggest that Enceladus has been tilted in the past.

The observations do not tell us anything on the cause of this tilt. Some blogs emphasize that it could be due to an impact. Why not? But less us be cautious.
Anyway, the orientation of the rotation axis is consistent with the current mass distribution, i.e. the polar axis has the largest moment of inertia. Actually, mid-sized planetary satellites like Enceladus are close to sphericity, in the sense that there is no huge difference between the moments of inertia of its principal axes. So, a redistribution of mass after a violent tilt seems to be possible.

To know more

And now the 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.