Tag Archives: Geophysics

Evolution of Venus’ crust

Hi there! Of course, you know Venus. This planet is sometimes nicknamed the twin sister of the Earth, but beside its size, it does not look like the Earth. Venus is closer to the Sun than us, and it has a very thick atmosphere, which is essentially composed of carbon dioxide. This atmosphere has a pressure of 93 bar at the surface of the planet, to be compared with 1 bar for the Earth, and the temperature reaches there 470°C. Definitely hostile.

Anyway, I do not speak of the atmosphere today, but of the surface. I present Inferences on the mantle viscosity structure and the post-overturn evolutionary state of Venus, by T. Rolf and collaborators, which has recently been published in Icarus.

The interior of Venus

Given its size, i.e. a diameter of 12,000 km, which is 95% of the one of the Earth, Venus must be differentiated. It has a crust, a mantle, and core, with increasing densities when you go deeper below the surface. We think the crust to be essentially basaltic, while the core must contain heavy elements. Surprisingly, the space missions did not detect any magnetic field, which means that the core may be not solid, or may be not cooling…

The outer part of the mantle should be fluid, which means that a fluid layer separates the core from the mantle. We know very few of the thicknesses and the compositions of these different layers. Actually, these could only be guessed from the measurements we dispose on, which are the gravity and the topography (see just below). Once you know the gravity field of Venus and its topography, you can elaborate interior models, which would be consistent with your data.

Gravity and topography

First, gravity. When a small body, like an artificial satellite, orbits a spherical planetary body, the gravitational perturbation affecting its motion depends only on the distance between the satellite and the planet. Now, if the planet is not spherical, and has mass anomalies, then the perturbation will not only depend on the distance, but also on the direction planet-satellite. You can determine the gravity field from the orbital deviation of your spacecraft.

It is convenient to write the gravity field as a sum of spherical harmonics. The first term (order 0) is a spherical one, then the order 2 (you have no order 1 if the center of your reference frame is the center of mass) represents the triaxiality of the planet, i.e. the planet seen as a triaxial ellipsoid. And the higher order terms will represent anomalies, with increasing resolutions. These resolutions are modeled as spatial periods. Such a representation has usually an efficient convergence, except for highly elongated bodies (see here).

We use such a representation for the topography as well. The difference is that the result is not the gravity field in any direction, but the altitude of the surface for a given point, i.e. a latitude and a longitude. The spacecraft measure the topography with a laser, which echo gives you the distance between the spacecraft and the surface. The altitude is directly deduced from this information.

Topography of Venus. The altitude variations are about 13 km with respect to a reference ellipsoid. © Calvin Hamilton, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
Topography of Venus. The altitude variations are about 13 km with respect to a reference ellipsoid. © Calvin Hamilton, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory

The best representations we dispose on for Venus come from the American spacecraft Magellan, which orbited Venus between 1990 and 1994. These representations go to the order 180.

Modeling the crustal evolution

In this study, the authors simulated possible evolutionary paths for the crust of Venus, and compared their results with the present Venus, i.e. the gravity and topography as we know them.

For that, they simulated the thermochemical evolution of Venus in using a numerical code, StagYY. This is a 3D-code, which models convection in the mantle, i.e. internal motions. This code is based on finite elements, i.e. the interior of Venus is split into small elements. This splitting is made following a so-called Yin-Yang grid, which is appropriate for spherical geometries. This code includes several features like phase transition (i.e. from solid to fluid, and conversely), compositional variations, partial melting and melt migration. Moreover, it is implemented for parallel computing.

In other words, these are huge calculations. The authors started with 10 simulations in which the crust was modeled as a single plate, i.e. a stagnant lid. The simulations differed by the modeling of the viscosity, and by the radiogenic heating rate. This is the heating of Venus by the decay of the radiogenic elements, which was most effective in the early Solar System.

Once these 10 simulations have run, the authors kept the one, which resulted in the closest Venus to the actual one, and introduced episodic overturns in it.

Stagnant-lid vs. overturn

Venus does not present any tectonic activity. Did it have some in the past? This is a question this study tried to answer.

An overturn is a sudden peak in the heat transfer from the core to the crust through the mantle, due to a too strong difference of temperature, i.e. when the mantle gets colder. Such an episodic phenomenon is triggered by a too thick crust, and results in a melting of this crust, in heating it. In other words, it regulates the thickness of the crust.

Overturns should have happened

And here are the results: the best stagnant-lid scenario, called S2 in the study, presents some discrepancy between the simulated present Venus and the observed one. These discrepancies are present in the topography, in the gravity field, and in the age of the surface. The surface is estimated to be between 0.3 and 1 Gyr old, while the best stagnant-lid scenario predicts that the most probable age is 0.25 Gyr… a little too young.

However, episodic overturns give a surface, which is 0.6 Gyr old. Moreover, the gravity and topography are much better fit. The only remaining problem is that this scenario should result in much detections of plumes than actually detected.

As the authors honestly recall, some physical phenomena were not considered, in particular the influence of the dense atmosphere, and intrusive volcanism. Anyway, this study strongly suggests that episodic overturn happened.

Further data will improve our understanding of Venus. Recently, the European Space Agency (ESA) has pre-selected 3 potential future space missions, including EnVision, i.e. an orbiter around Venus. The final decision is expected in 2021.

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.

The lunar history

(Alternative title: The search for the origin of the Late Heavy Bombardment)

Hi there! It is a pleasure for me to present you today a multi-disciplinary study, which mixes celestial mechanics with geochemistry. If you want to know the past of a planetary body, you must go backward: you start from the body as you observe it nowadays, and from this you infer the processes which made it evolve from its formation to its present state. In The timeline of the Lunar bombardment – revisited, by A. Morbidelli, D. Nesvorný, V. Laurenz, S. Marchi, D.C. Rubie, L. Elkins-Tanton, M. Wieczorek and S. Jacobson, the authors exploit our observations of the craters and the chemistry of the Moon, and simulations of the motion of asteroids in the early Solar System, to give new constraints on the bombardment of the Moon between 3.9 and 3.7 Gyr (billions of years) ago, which is famous as the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB). We will see that the results have implications for Mars. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

The Lunar basins

Let us start from what we observe: the Lunar surface. This is a heavily cratered surface. Actually, the absence of atmosphere preserves it from erosion, and the small size of the Moon limits its heating, as a consequence the craters neither erode nor relax. Hence, the surface of the Moon is a signature of the activity in the early Solar System.

Let us focus on the largest structures, i.e. the maria and the basins. The maria are lava plains, which result from a volcanic activity of the early Moon. However, the basins are the largest impact craters. You can find below the largest ones, of course many smaller craters exist.

Basin Diameter (km)
South Pole-Aitken 2,600
Imbrium 1,100
Orientale 930
Serenitatis 920
Australe 880
Nectaris 860
Smythii 740
Crisium 740
Tranquillitatis 700
Tsiolkovsky-Stark 700
Fecunditatis 690
Mutus-Vlacq 690
Nubium 690

The early Moon was hot, because of the impact which created it. As a hot body, it stratified into a fluid core, a mantle and a crust, while cooling. The visible impact craters are younger than the crust, i.e. they are younger than 3.9 Gyr, and were created at least 600 Myr after the formation of the Moon… pretty late, hence due to the Late Heavy Bombardment.

Orientale Basin. © NASA
Orientale Basin. © NASA

Origin of the LHB: cataclysm or accretion tail?

Late Heavy Bombardment means that the inner Solar System have been intensively bombarded late after its genesis. But how did that happen? Two scenarios can be found in the literature:

  1. Cataclysm: the very young Solar System was very active, i.e. composed of many small bodies which collided, partly accreting… and became pretty quiet during some hundreds of Myr… before suddenly, a new phase of bombardment occurred.
  2. Accretion tail: the Solar System had a slowly decreasing activity, and the craters on the Moon are just the signature of the last 200 Myrs. The previous impacts were not recorded, since the surface was still molten.

The second scenario could be preferred, as the simplest one. The first one needs a cause which would trigger this second phase of bombardment. Anyway, many numerical simulations of the early Solar System got such an activity, as a dynamical phenomenon destabilizing the orbits of a group of small bodies, which themselves entered the inner Solar System and collided with the planets, accreting on them. The giant planets Jupiter and Saturn have a dominant dynamical influence on the small bodies of the Solar System, and could have triggered such an instability. One of the theories existing in the literature is the E-Belt, for extended belt. It would have been an internal extension of the Main Belt of asteroids, which would have been destabilized by a secular resonance with Saturn, and has finished as the impactors of the LHB. Why not, this is a theory.

When you model phenomena having occurred several billions years ago, you have so many uncertainties that you cannot be certain that your solution is the right one. This is why the literature proposes several scenarios. Further studies test them, and sometimes (this is the case here) give additional constraints, which refine them.

Thanks to the Apollo mission, samples of the Moon have been analyzed on Earth, and geochemistry can tell us many things on the history of a body. For the Moon, focus has been put on siderophile elements.

What siderophile elements tell us

A siderophile element is a chemical element which has affinity with iron. Among these elements are iron, iridium, palladium, platinum, rubidium… When a planetary body is hot, it tends to differentiate, and its heaviest elements, i.e. iron, migrate to the core. This results in a depletion of highly siderophile elements (HSE). Since a very small abundance of these elements has been observed, then we have no problem, thank you…

NO NO NO there is actually a problem, since these siderophile elements should be present in the impactors, which are supposed to have accreted on the Moon AFTER its stratification… yes we have a problem.

But some of the authors have shown recently that on Earth, another phenomenon could remove the HSEs from the crust, well after the formation of the core: the exsolution and segregation of iron sulfide. In other words, the bombardment could have brought more HSEs than currently recorded. And this motivates to revisite the history of the Lunar bombardment.

Simulating the bombardment

So, the observations are: the craters, and the HSEs. The craters are not only the basins, but also the smaller ones, with diameters larger than 1 km. Even smaller craters could be used, but the data are considered to be reliable, i.e. exhaustive, for craters larger than 1 km. From that size to the large basins, we can fit a function of distribution, i.e. number of craters vs. diameter. Since there is an obvious correlation between the size of a crater and the one of the impactor, a population of craters corresponds to a population of impactors.

The authors dispose of statistics of collisions, which could be seen as mass accretion, between the Moon and small bodies during the early ages of the Solar System. These statistics result from numerical simulations conducted by some of them, and they can be fine-tuned to fit the crater distribution, their estimated ages, and the abundance of highly siderophile elements. Fine-tuning the statistics consist in artificially moving the parameters of the simulation, for instance the initial number of small bodies, or the date of the instability provoking the cataclysm, in the cataclysm scenario.

Cataclysm possible, accretion tail preferred

And here is the result: if the HSEs are only due to the mass accretion after the cooling of the Lunar crust, then the observations can only be explained by the cataclysm, i.e. the LHB would be due to a late instability. This instability would have resulted in a mass accretion from comets, and this raises another problem: this accretion seems to lack of primitive, carbonaceous material, while the comets contain some.

However, if the HSEs have been removed after the cooling of the crust, then the accretion tail scenario is possible.

We should accept that for this kind of study, the solution is not unique. A way to tend to the unicity of the solution is to discuss further implications, in examining other clues. And the authors mention the tungsten.

Tungsten is another marker

Tungsten is rather a lithophile than a siderophile element, at least in the presence of iron sulfide. In other words, even if it does not dislike iron, it prefers lithium (I like this way of discussing chemistry). Something puzzling is a significant difference in the ratios of two isotopes of tungsten (182W and 184W) between the Moon and the Earth. This difference could be primordial, as brought by the projectile which is supposed to have splitted the proto-Earth into the Earth and the Moon (nickname of the projectile: Theia), or it could be due to the post-formation mass accumulation. In that case, that would be another constraint on the LHB.

Implications for Mars

The LHB has affected the whole inner Solar System. So, if a scenario is valid for the Moon, it must be valid for Mars.
This is why the authors did the job for Mars as well. A notable difference is that Mars would be less impacted by comets than the Moon, and this would affect the composition of the accreted material. More precisely, a cataclysmic LHB would be a mixture of asteroids and comets, while an accretion tail one would essentially consist of leftover planetesimals. It appears that this last scenario, i.e. the accretion tail one, can match the distribution of craters and the abundance of HSEs. However, the cataclysmic scenario would not bring enough HSEs on Mars.


This study tells us that the accretion tail scenario is possible. The authors show that it would imply that

  1. The quantity of remaining HSEs on the Moon is correlated with the crystallization of the Lunar magma ocean, which itself regulates the age of the earliest Lunar crust.
  2. For Mars, the Noachian era would have started 200 Myr earlier than currently thought, i.e. 4.3 Gyr instead of 4.1 Gyr. That period is characterized by high rates of meteorite and asteroid impacts and the possible presence of abundant surface water. Moreover, the Borealis formation, i.e. the northern hemisphere of Mars, which seems to be a very large impact basin, should have been formed 4.37 Gyr ago.

Further studies, explorations, space missions, lab experiments,… should give us new data, which would challenge these implications and refine these scenarios. So, the wording prediction can seem weird for past phenomena, but the prediction is for new clues.

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.

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.