Tag Archives: Cassini

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.

A new ringlet around Saturn

Hi there! Today I will tell you about the detection of a ringlet in the rings of Saturn, by Matthew Hedman and Brian Carter, at the University of Idaho (USA). This ringlet presents an interesting dynamics, this is why it caught my attention. Such a discovery is made possible thanks to the Cassini-Huygens space mission, which orbits Saturn since 2004.

The mission Cassini-Huygens

Cassini-Huygens is a joint mission of the NASA, the ESA, and the Italian Space Agency ISA. It consists of a spacecraft, Cassini, which orbits Saturn since 2004, and a probe, Huygens, which landed and died on Titan in January 2005.
This mission Cassini-Huygens is one of the most ambitious ever made, this is why it required an American-European collaboration. It has given us, and is still giving, invaluable information on the system of Saturn. For instance, it permitted the expected discovery of a global subsurface ocean for Titan, and a more surprising one for Enceladus,. Mimas may also have one, from the measurements of its rotation, and that would be even more surprising. Before Cassini-Huygens, we thought that the system of Saturn was a kind of old, frozen and boring world, while it is actually pretty recent, and even the mid-sized icy satellites may present complex interiors. As a consequence, this pushed some of our colleagues to propose new scenarios of formation of the satellites of Saturn, either as droplets composed of ring material which would have migrated outward, or as remnants of larger progenitors, which were impacted.
These are just examples, and I cannot give an exhaustive list of discoveries due to Cassini-Huygens. We have now images of the surface of Titan, we have in situ measurements of its winds, we know the satellites and the planet Saturn much better… Let us focus on the rings.

Rings of Saturn facts

The rings of Saturn are known since Galileo Galilei, and the evolution of Earth telescopes made possible the discoveries of structures in them. The most famous of them is the Cassini Division, which is a 4,000 km wide gap between the two densest of Saturn’s rings, i.e. the A and the B rings. To have a quick overview:

  • 186,000 km: Orbit of Mimas, the closest of the major satellites of Saturn
  • 141,800 km: Orbit of Pandora
  • 140,200 km: The F ring (pretty faint)
  • 139,500 km: Orbit of Prometheus
  • 139,350 km: The new ringlet
  • 122,000 to 137,000 km: The A ring (dense)
  • 133,600 km: the Encke gap, i.e. a lack of material in the A ring
  • 117,500 to 122,000 km: The Cassini Division (still some material, but pretty few)
  • 92,000 to 117,500 km: The B ring (the densest one)
  • 74,600 to 92,000 km: The C Ring (faint)
  • 67,000 to 74,500 km: The D Ring (faint)
  • 58,200 km: Radius of Saturn, where its atmospheric pressure reaches 1 bar

It is known whether a ring is faint or dense from its optical density, which is then associated with an estimated surface density of the ring, seen as a flat structure. Here, I have mixed the main structures of the rings with fainter ones, which are more relevant in this study. I have particularly emphasized the new ringlet, which discovery is presented in this study.

Beside this, you can notice the presence of some small satellites embedded in the rings. I mention Prometheus and Pandora since they are close to the new ringlet, but there are actually more, e.g. Janus, Epimetheus, Atlas, Pan,…

Discovering this new ringlet

A ringlet is a kind of narrow ring of dusty material, i.e. small particles, their radius being something between the centimeter and the meter. Discovering a new ring is challenging because it is very faint. Here, it was discovered on images of the Narrow Angle Camera (NAC) of the Imaging Science Subsystem of the Cassini spacecraft. To make its presence obvious, it is necessary to use images which are not saturated, to remove the background luminosity, and to equalize the response of the different pixels constituting the image (flat-fielding). For this study, the authors used mostly images taken between 2012 and 2014, but some in 2006 as well.

An interesting dynamics

The authors find that this ring is an ellipse with a small eccentricity (0.0012), which precesses. This means that this ellipse is not fixed, but moves around Saturn, while the particles constituting the ringlet move much faster, on the ellipse. Their orbital period is pretty the same as Prometheus’, i.e. some 15 hours, but surprisingly the precession period of the ellipse is longer, i.e. 133 days, against 130 for Prometheus, and is very close to the one of the F Ring.
This is pretty unexpected for the following reason: in an ideal (keplerian) problem, i.e. a point-mass planet around which orbits a particle, the orbit does not precess. The precession is due to departures from this problem, mostly the polar flattening of Saturn, but also the gravitational perturbation of the other satellites. It can be easily shown that, if you get closer to Saturn, you precess faster. Here, the ringlet precesses slower than Prometheus while its orbit is inside. The authors have an elegant explanation, in showing convincingly that the collisions between the particles can synchronize the precession of this ringlet with the one of the F ring, providing that this ringlet is faint enough. I admit that I had not heard of this mechanism before, but the authors convince me. I would have a priori suspected the gravitational interaction of Pandora, but its precession is even slower than the measured one. There is at least one another example of synchronization of the precessions in the system of Saturn: Titan is so massive that it forces the precession of the orbit of Rhea.
The authors also mention the possibility that the particles of this new ringlet are affected by a co-orbital mean-motion resonance with Prometheus. I choose to focus on the synchronization of the precession with the F Ring, since I consider this is the most exciting result of the study. This would be the first accurate measurement of this collision-assisted synchronization, and we can expect in the future many other examples of this mechanism.

Some links

  • The webpage of Matt Hedman
  • The study, accepted for publication in Icarus, and made freely available on arXiV by the authors, many thanks for sharing!
  • The space mission Cassini-Huygens

That’s all folks! Please, don’t hesitate to leave a comment!