Category Archives: Satellites of Saturn

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.

Spatial variations of Enceladus’ plumes

Hi there! I guess most of you have heard of Enceladus. This mid-sized icy satellite of Saturn arouses the interest of planetologists, because of its geological activity. Permanent eruptions of plumes, essentially made of water ice, have been detected at its South Pole, by the Cassini spacecraft. The study I present you today, Spatial variations in the dust-to-gas ratio of Enceladus’ plume, by M.M. Hedman, D. Dhingra, P.D. Nicholson, C.J. Hansen, G. Portyankina, S. Ye and Y. Dong, has recently been published in Icarus.

The South Pole of Enceladus

Enceladus orbits around Saturn in one day and 9 hours, at a mean distance of 238,000 km. It is the second of the mid-sized satellites of Saturn by its distance from the planet, and is in an orbital 2:1 resonance with Dione, i.e. Dione makes exactly one revolution around Saturn while Enceladus makes 2. This results in a slight forcing of its orbital eccentricity, which remains anyway modest, i.e. 0.005. Like our Moon and many satellites of the giant planets, Enceladus rotates synchronously.

Interestingly, the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers at the South Pole of Enceladus, and fractures, which were nicknamed tiger stripes. They were named after 4 Middle East cities: Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, and Damascus.

The South Pole of Enceladus. We can see from left to right the famous tiger stripes, i.e. Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus sulci. © NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/DLR
The South Pole of Enceladus. We can see from left to right the famous tiger stripes, i.e. Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus sulci. © NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/DLR

These 4 fractures are 2km-large and 500m-deep depressions, which extend up to 130 km. The plumes emerge from them. Interior models suggest that the source of these geysers is a diapir of water, located at the South Pole.

Analysis of these plumes require them to be illuminated, and observed with spectroscopic devices. This is where the instruments UVIS and VIMS get involved.

The instruments UVIS & VIMS of Cassini

The study I present you today presents an analysis of VIMS data, before comparing the results of the same event given by UVIS.

UVIS and VIMS are two instruments of the Cassini mission, which completed a 13-years tour in the system of Saturn in September 2017 with its Grand Finale, crashing in the atmosphere of Saturn. It was accompanied by the lander Huygens, which landed on Titan in 2005, and had 12 instruments on board. Among them were UVIS and VIMS.

And then, you wonder, dear reader, whether I will introduce you UVIS and VIMS, since I mention them since the beginning without introducing them. Yes, this is now.

UVIS stands for Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, and VIMS for Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer. Their functions are in their names: both analyze the incoming light, UVIS in the ultraviolet spectrum, and VIMS in the visible and infrared ones. And the combination of these two spectra is relevant in this study: the analysis in the ultraviolet tells you one thing (quantity of gas), while the analysis in the infrared gives the quantity of dust. When you compare them, you have the dust-to-gas ratio. Of course, this is not that straightforward. First you have to collect the data.

Analyzing a Solar occultation by the plumes

As I said, the plume needs to be illuminated. And for that, you have to position the spacecraft where the plumes occult the Sun. So, this could happen only during a fly-by of Enceladus, which means that it was impossible to have a permanent monitoring of these plumes. Moreover, from the geometry of the configuration, i.e. location of the plume, of the Sun, of the spacecraft,… you had the data at a given altitude. It is easy to figure out that the water is more volatile than dust, is ejected faster, and higher… In other words, the higher is the observation, the lower the dust-to-gas ratio.

The studied occultation happened on May 18, 2010, and lasted approximately 70 seconds, during which the illuminated plumes originated from different tiger stripes. This means that a temporal variation of the composition of plumes during the event means a spatial variation in the subsurface of the South Pole. The altitude was 20-30 km.

But detecting a composition is a tough task. Actually the UVIS data, i.e. detection of water, were published in 2011, and the VIMS ones (detection of dust) only in 2018, probably because the signal is very weak. The authors observed a Solar spectrum in the infrared, and at the exact date of the occultation, a slight flux drop occurred, which was the signature of a dusty plume. For it to be exploitable, the authors had to treat the signal, i.e. de-noise it.

After this treatment, the resulting signal was an optical depth in 256 spectral channels between 0.85 an 5.2 microns. You then need to compare it with a theoretical model of diffraction by micrometric particles, the Mie diffraction, to have an idea of the particle-size distribution. Because the particles do not all have the same size, of course! Actually, the distribution is close to a power law of index 4.

Spatial variations detected

And here is the results: at an altitude of around 25 km, the authors have found that the material emerging from Baghdad and Damascus are up to one order of magnitude, i.e. 10 times, more particle-rich than the ones emerging from Alexandria and Cairo sulci.

It is not straightforward to draw conclusions from this single event. Once more, a permanent monitoring of the plumes was impossible. Spatial variations of the dust-to-gas ratio at a given altitude could either mean something on the variations of the dust-to-gas ratio in the subsurface diapir, and/or something on the spatial variations of the ejection velocities of dust and gas. Once more, the ratio is expected to decline with the altitude, since the water is more volatile.

We dispose of data from other events, for instance a fly-by, named E7, which occurred in November 2009, of the South Pole at an altitude of 100 km, during which the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) analyzed the plumes. The data are pretty consistent with the ones presented here, but the altitude is very different, so be careful.

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.

Tides in the lakes of Titan

Hi there! The satellite of Saturn Titan has hydrocarbon seas, i.e. lakes made of liquid ethane and methane. When you have a sea, or a lake, you may have tides, and this is what this study is about. I present you A numerical study of tides in Titan’s northern seas, Kraken and Ligeia Maria, by David Vincent, Özgür Karatekin, Jonathan Lambrechts, Ralph D. Lorenz, Véronique Dehant, and Éric Deleersnijder, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The lakes of Titan

The presence of hydrocarbons in such a thick atmosphere as the one of Titan has suggested since the spacecraft Voyager 1 than methane and ethane could exist in the liquid state on the surface of Titan. There could even be a cycle of methane, as there is a hydrological cycle on Earth, in which the liquid methane on the surface feeds the clouds of gaseous methane in the atmosphere, and conversely.

The spacecraft Cassini has detected dark smooth features, which revealed to be these hydrocarbon seas. Here is a list of the largest ones:

Location Diameter
Kraken Mare 68.0°N 310.0°W 1,170 km
Ligeia Mare 79.0°N 248.0°W 500 km
Punga Mare 85.1°N 339.7°W 380 km
Jingpo Lacus 73.0°N 336.0°W 240 km
Ontario Lacus 72.0°S 183.0°W 235 km
Mackay Lacus 78.32°N 97.53°W 180 km
Bolsena Lacus 75.75°N 10.28°W 101 km

I present you only the detected lakes with a diameter larger than 100 km, but some have been detected with a diameter as small as 6 km. It appears that these lakes are located at high latitudes, i.e. in the polar regions. Moreover, there is an obvious North-South asymmetry, i.e. there are much more lakes in the Northern hemisphere than in the Southern one. This could be due to the circulation of clouds of Titan: they would form near the equator, from the evaporation of liquid hydrocarbons, and migrate to the poles, where they would precipitate (i.e. rain) into lakes. Let us now focus on the largest two seas, i.e. Kraken and Ligeia Maria.

Kraken and Ligeia Maria

Kraken and Ligeia Maria are two adjacent seas, which are connected by a strait, named Trevize Fretum, which permit liquid exchanges. Kraken is composed of two basins, named Kraken 1 (north) and Kraken 2 (south), which are connected by a strait named Seldon Fretum, which dimensions are similar to the strait of Gibraltar, between Morocco and Spain.

Kraken and Ligeia Maria. © NASA
Kraken and Ligeia Maria. © NASA

Alike the Moon and Sun which raise tides on our seas, Saturn raises tides on the lakes. These tides cannot be measured yet, but they can be simulated, and this is what the authors did. In a previous study, they had simulated the tides on Ontario Lacus.

They honestly admit that the tides on Kraken and Ligeia Maria have already been simulated by other authors. Here, they use a more efficient technique, i.e. which uses less computational resources, and get consistent results.

Numerical modeling with SLIM

Computational fluid dynamics, often referred as CFD, is far from an easy task. The reason is that the dynamics of fluids in ruled by non-linear partial derivative equations like the famous Navier-Stokes, i.e. equations which depend on several variables, like the time, the temperature, the location (i.e. where are you exactly on the lake?), etc. Moreover, they depend on several parameters, some of them being barely constrained. We accurately know the gravitational tidal torque due to Saturn, however we have many uncertainties on the elasticity of the crust of Titan, on the geometry of the coast, on the bathymetry, i.e. the bottom of the seas. So, several sets of parameters have to be considered, for which numerical simulations should be run.

It is classical to use a finite element method for problems of CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics, remember?). This consists to model the seas not as continuous domains, but as a mesh of finite elements, here triangular, on which the equations are defined.
The structure of the mesh is critical. A first, maybe intuitive, approach would be to consider finite elements of equal size, but it appears that this way of integrating the equations is computationally expensive and could be optimized. Actually, the behavior of the fluid is very sensitive to the location close to the coasts, but much less in the middle of the seas. In other words, the mesh needs to be tighter at the coasts. The authors built an appropriate mesh, which is unstructured and follow the so-called Galerkin method, which adapts the mesh to the equations.

The authors then integrated the equations with their homemade SLIM software, for Second-generation Louvain-la-Neuve Ice-ocean Model. The city of Louvain-la-Neuve hosts the French speaking Belgian University Université Catholique de Louvain, where most of this study has been conducted. The model SLIM has been originally built for hydrology, to model the behavior of fluids on Earth, and its simulations have been successfully confronted to terrain measurements. It thus makes sense to use it for modeling the behavior of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan.

In this study, the authors used the 2-dimensional shallow water equations, which are depth-integrated. In other words, they directly simulated the surface rather than the whole volume of the seas, which of course requires much less computation time.
Let us now see their results.

Low diurnal tides

The authors simulated the tides over 150 Titan days. A Titan day is 15.95 days long, which is the orbital period of Titan around Saturn. During this period, the distance Titan-Saturn varies between 1,186,680 and 1,257,060 km because the orbit of Titan is eccentric, and so does the intensity of the tidal torque. This intensity also varies because of the obliquity of Titan, i.e. the tilt of its rotation axis, which is 0.3°. Because of these two quantities, we have a period of variation of 15.95 days, and its harmonics, i.e. half the period, a third of the period, etc.

It appeared from the simulations that the 15.95-d response is by far the dominant one, except at some specific locations where the tides cancel out (amphidromic points). The highest tides are 0.29 m and 0.14 m in Kraken and Ligeia, respectively.

Higher responses could have been expected in case of resonances between eigenmodes of the fluids, i.e. natural frequencies of oscillations, and the excitation frequencies due to the gravitational action of Saturn. It actually appeared that the eigenmodes, which have been computed by SLIM, have much shorter periods than the Titan day, which prevents any significant resonance. The author did not consider the whole motion of Titan around Saturn, in particular the neglected planetary perturbations, which would have induced additional exciting modes. Anyway, the corresponding periods would have been much longer than the Titan day, and would not have excited any resonance. They would just have given the annual variations of tides, with a period of 29.4 years, which is the orbital period of Saturn around the Sun.

Fluid exchanges between the lakes

SLIM permits to trace fluid particles, which reveals the fluid exchanges between the basins. Because of their narrow geometry, the straits are places where the currents are the strongest, i.e. 0.3 m/s in Seldon Fretum.
The volumetric exchanges are 3 times stronger between Kraken 1 and Kraken 2 than between Kraken and Ligeia. These exchanges behave as an oscillator, i.e. they are periodic with respect to the Titan day. As a consequence, there is a strong correlation between the volume of Kraken 1, and the one of Kraken 2. Anyway, these exchanges are weak with respect to the volume of the basins.

The attenuation is critical

The authors studied the influence of the response with respect to different parameters: the bathymetry of the seas (i.e., the geometry of the bottom), the influence of bottom friction, the depth of Trevize Fretum, and the attenuation factor γ2, which represents the viscoelastic response of the surface of Titan to the tidal excitation. It appears that γ2 plays a key role. Actually, the maximum tidal range is an increasing function of the attenuation, and in Seldon and Trevize Fretum, the maximum velocities behave as a square root of γ2. It thus affects the fluid exchanges. Moreover, these exchanges are also affected by the depth of Trevize Fretum, which is barely constrained.

Another mission to Titan is needed to better constrain these parameters!

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. And let me wish you a healthy and happy year 2018.

Water-ice boundary on Titan

Hi there! Titan may be the most famous satellite in the Solar System, I realize that I never devoted a post to it. It is high time to make it so. I present you Does Titan’s long-wavelength topography contain information about subsurface ocean dynamics? by Jakub Kvorka, Ondřej Čadek, Gabriel Tobie & Gaël Choblet, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus. This paper tries to understand the mechanisms responsible for the location of the boundary between the icy crust and the subsurface ocean. This affects the thickness of the crust, which itself affects the topography of Titan.

Titan

The existence of Titan is known since 1655 thanks to the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. It was the only known satellite of Saturn until the discovery of Iapetus in 1671. It is the second largest natural satellite of the Solar System (mean radius: 2,575 km), and it orbits Saturn in almost 16 days, on a 3% eccentric and almost equatorial orbit (actually, a small tilt is due to the gravitational influence of the Sun).

It has interesting physical characteristics:

  • A thick atmosphere (pressure at the surface: 1.5 bar) mainly composed of nitrogen, with clouds of methane and ethane.
  • A complex surface. We can find hydrocarbon seas, i.e. lakes of methane and ethane (Kraken Mare, Ontario Lacus…), we also have a mountain chain, which features have been named after Tolkien’s Lords of the Rings (Gandalf Colles, Erebor Mons,…). There are some impact craters as well, but not that many, which suggests a geologically young surface. There is probably cryovolcanism on Titan, i.e. eruptions of volatile elements. The surface and the atmosphere interact, i.e. there are exchange between the liquid methane and ethane of the lakes and the gaseous ones present in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is responsible for erosion of the surface, for winds which are likely to create dunes, and for heat exchanges.
  • A global subsurface ocean, lying under the icy crust.
Map of Titan.
Map of Titan.

The quest for the internal ocean

An internal, water ocean is considered to be of high interest for habitability, i.e. we cannot exclude the presence of bacteriological life in such an environment. This makes Titan one of the priority targets for future investigations.

The presence of the ocean was hinted long ago, from the consideration that, at some depth, the water ice covering the surface would be in such conditions of temperature and pressure that it should not be solid anymore, but liquid. The detection of this ocean has been hoped from the Cassini-Huygens mission, and this was a success. More precisely:

  • The rotation of the surface of Titan is synchronous, i.e. Titan shows on average the same face to Saturn, like our Moon, but with a significant obliquity (0.3°), which could reveal the presence of a global ocean which would decouple the rotation of the crust from the one of the core.
  • A Schumann resonance, i.e. an electromagnetic signal, has been detected by the lander Huygens in the atmosphere of Titan, during its fall. This could be due to an excitation of a magnetic field by a global conductive layer, i.e. a global subsurface ocean.
  • The gravitational Love number k2, which gives the amplitude of the response of the gravity field of Titan to the variations of the gravitational attraction of Saturn, is too large to be explained by a fully solid Titan.

All of these clues have convinced almost all of the scientific community that Titan has a global subsurface ocean. Determining its depth, thickness, composition,… is another story. In the study I present you today, the authors tried to elucidate the connection between its depth and the surface topography.

Modeling the ice-water boundary

The authors tried to determine the depth of the melting point of the water ice with respect to the latitude and longitude. This phase boundary is the thickness of the icy crust. For that, they wrote down the equations governing the viscoelastic deformation of the crust, its thermal evolution, and the motion of the boundary.

The viscoelastic deformation, i.e. deformation with dissipation, is due to the varying tidal action of Saturn, and the response depends on the properties of the material, i.e. rigidity, viscosity… The law ruling the behavior of the ice is here the Andrade law… basically it is a Maxwell rheology at low frequencies, i.e. elastic behavior for very slow deformations, viscoelastic behavior when the deformations gets faster… and for very fast excitation frequencies (tidal frequencies), the Maxwell model, which is based on one parameter (the Maxwell time, which gives an idea of the period of excitation at the transition between elastic and viscoelastic behavior), underestimates the dissipation. This is where the more complex Andrade model is useful. The excitation frequencies are taken in the variations of the distance Titan-Saturn, which are ruled by the gravitational perturbations of the Sun, of the rings, of the other satellites…

These deformations and excitations are responsible for variations of the temperature, which are also ruled by physical properties of the material (density, thermal conductivity), and which will determine whether the water should be solid or liquid. As a consequence, they will induce a motion of the phase change boundary.

Resolution by spectral decomposition

The equations ruling the variables of the problem are complex, in particular because they are coupled. Moreover, we should not forget that the density, thickness, temperature, resulting heat flows… not only depend on time, but also on where you are on the surface of Titan, i.e. the latitude and the longitude. To consider the couplings between the different surface elements, the authors did not use a finite-element modeling, but a spectral method instead.

The idea is to consider that the deformation of the crust is the sum of periodic deformations, with respect to the longitude and latitude. The basic shape is a sphere (order 0). If you want to be a little more accurate, you say that Titan is triaxial (order 2). And if you want to be more accurate, you introduce higher orders, which would induce bulges at non equatorial latitudes, north-south asymmetries for odd orders, etc. It is classical to decompose the tidal potential under a spectral form, and the authors succeeded to solve the equations of the problem in writing down the variables as sums of spherical harmonics.

The role of the grain size

And the main result is that the grain size of the ice plays a major role. In particular, the comparison between the resulting topography and the one measured by the Cassini mission up to the 3rd order shows that we need grains larger than 10 mm to be consistent with the observations. The authors reached an equilibrium in at the most 10 Myr, i.e. the crust is shaped in a few million years. They also addressed the influence of other parameters, like the rigidity of the ice, but with much less significant outcomes. Basically, the location of the melting / crystallization boundary is ruled by the grain size.

In the future

Every new study is another step forward. Others will follow. At least two directions can be expected.

Refinements of the theory

The authors honestly admit that the presence of other compounds in the ocean, like ammonia, is not considered here. Adding such compounds could affect the behavior of the ocean and the phase boundary. This would require at least one additional parameter, i.e. the fraction of ammonia. But the methodology presented here would still be valid, and additional studies would be incremental improvements of this one.
A possible implication of these results is the ocean dynamics, which is pretty difficult to model.

More data?

Another step forward could come from new data. Recently the mission proposal Dragonfly has been selected as a finalist by the NASA’s New Frontiers program. It would be a rotorcraft lander on Titan. Being selected as a finalist is a financial encouragement to refine and mature the concept within the year 2018, before final decision in July 2019 (see video below).

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.

The mountainous equator of Iapetus

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

The satellite Iapetus

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

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

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

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

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

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

The equatorial ridge

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

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

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

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

Counting the craters

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

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

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

Results

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

The study and its authors

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