Tag Archives: internal structure

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.

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.


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.

Breaking an asteroid

Hi there! Asteroids, these small bodies in the Solar System, are fascinating by the diversity of their shapes. This is a consequence of their small sizes. Another consequence is their weakness, which itself helps to split some of them into different parts, sometimes creating binary objects, asteroids families… The study I present you today, Internal gravity, self-energy, and disruption of comets and asteroids, by Anthony R. Dobrovolskis and Donald G. Korycansky, proposes an accurate computation of the required energy to provoke this break-up, at any place of the asteroid, i.e. you are more efficient when you hit at a given location. This study has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus.

Shapes of asteroids

Please allow me, in this context, to call asteroid a comet, a comet being a small body, i.e. like an asteroid, but with a cometary activity. The important thing is that the involved bodies are small enough.

Beyond a given size, i.e. a diameter of ~400 km, a planetary body is roughly spheroidal, i.e. it is an ellipsoid with it two equatorial axes almost equal and the polar one smaller, because of its rotation. For a tidally despun body, like the Moon, or a satellite of a giant planet, the shape is more triaxial, since the tidal (gravitational) action of the parent planet tends to elongate the equatorial plane. The same phenomenon affects Mercury.

However, for smaller bodies, the self-gravitation is not strong enough to make the body look more or less like a sphere. As a consequence, you can have almost any shape, some bodies are bilobate, some are contact binaries, i.e. two bodies which permanently touch together, some others are rubble piles, i.e. are weak aggregates of rocks, with many voids.

These configurations make these bodies likely to undergo or have undergone break-up. This can be quantified by the required energy to extract some material from the asteroid.

The energies involved

For that, an energy budget must be performed. The relevant energies to consider are:

  • The impact disruption energy: the minimum kinetic energy of an impactor, to shatter the asteroid and remove at least half of its mass,
  • The shattering energy: the minimum energy needed to shatter the asteroid into many small pieces. It is part of the impact disruption energy. This energy is roughly proportional to the mass of the asteroid. It represents the cohesion between the adjacent pieces.
  • The binding energy: this energy binds the pieces constituting the asteroid. In other words, once you have broken an asteroid (don’t try this at home!), you have to make sure the pieces will not re-aggregate… because of the binding energy. For that, you have to bring enough energy to disperse the fragments.
  • The self-gravitational energy: due to the mutual gravitational interaction between the blocks constituting the asteroids. Bodies smaller than 1 km are strength-dominated, i.e. they exist thanks to the cohesion between the blocks, which is the shatter energy. However, larger bodies are gravity-dominated.
  • The kinetic energy of rotation: the spin of these bodies tends to enlarge the equatorial section. In that sense, it assists the break-up process.

This study addresses bodies, which are far enough from the Sun. This is the reason why I do not mention its influences, i.e. the tides and the thermic effects, which could be relevant for Near-Earth Objects. In particular, the YORP effect is responsible for the fission of some of them. I do not mention the orbital kinetic energy of the asteroid either. Actually the orbital motion is part of the input energy brought by an impact, since the relative velocity of the impactor with respect to the target is relevant in this calculation.

I now focus on the two cases studied by the authors to illustrate their theory: the asteroid Kleopatra and the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

2 peculiar cases: Kleopatra and Churyumov-Gerasimenko

216 Kleopatra is a Main-Belt asteroid. Adaptive optics observations have shown that is is constituted of two masses bound by material, giving a ham-bone shaped. As such, it can be considered as a contact binary. It is probably a rubble pile. Interestingly, observations have also shown that Kleopatra has 2 small satellites, Alexhelios and Cleoselene, which were discovered in 2008.

Reconstruction of the shape of Kleopatra. © NASA
Reconstruction of the shape of Kleopatra. © NASA

However, 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a Jupiter-family comet, i.e. its aphelion is close to the orbit of Jupiter, while its perihelion is close to the one of the Earth. It has an orbital period of 6.45 years, and was the target of the Rosetta mission, which consisted of an orbiter and a lander, Philae. Rosetta orbited Churyumov-Gerasimenko between 2014 and 2016. The shape of this comet is sometimes described as rubber ducky, with two dominant masses, a torso and a head, bound together by some material, i.e. a neck.

Churyumov-Gerasimenko seen by Rosetta. © ESA
Churyumov-Gerasimenko seen by Rosetta. © ESA
216 Kleopatra 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
Semimajor axis 2.794 AU 3.465 AU
Eccentricity 0.251 0.641
Inclination 13.11° 7.04°
Spin period 5.385 h 12.761 h
Mean radius 62 km 2.2 km
Magnitude 7.30 11.30
Discovery 1880 1969

The irregular shapes of these two bodies make them interesting targets for a study addressing the gravitation of any object. Let us see now how the authors addressed the problem.

Numerical modeling

Several models exist in the literature to address the gravity field of planetary bodies. The first approximation is to consider them as spheres, then you can refine in seeing them as triaxial ellipsoids. For highly irregular bodies you can try to model them as cuboids, and then as polyhedrons. Another way is to see them as duplexes, this allows to consider the inhomogeneities dues to the two masses constituting bilobate objects. The existence of previous studies allow a validation of the model proposed by the authors.

And their model is a finite-element numerical modeling. The idea is to split the surface of the asteroid into small triangular planar facets, which should be very close to the actual surface. The model is all the more accurate with many small facets, but this has the drawback of a longer computation time. The facets delimit the volume over which the equations are integrated, these equations giving the local self-gravitational and the impact disruption energies. The authors also introduce the energy rebate, which is a residual energy, due to the fact that you can remove material without removing half of it. This means that the impact disruption energy, as it is defined in the literature, is probably a too strong condition to have extrusion of material.
The useful physical quantities, which are the gravitational potential, the attraction, and the surface slope, are propagated all along the body thanks to a numerical scheme, which accuracy is characterized by an order. This order quantifies the numerical approximation which is made at each integration step. A higher order is more accurate, but is computationally more expensive.

Once the code has been run on test cases, the authors applied it on Kleopatra and Churyumov-Gerasimenko, for which the shape is pretty well known. They used meshes of 4,094 and 5,786 faces, respectively.


The validation phase is successful. The authors show that with a 3rd order numerical scheme, they recover the results present in the literature for the test cases with an accuracy of ~0.1%, which is much better than the accuracy of the shape models for the real asteroids. Regarding Kleopatra and Churyumov-Gerasimenko, they get the gravity field at any location, showing in particular excesses of gravity at the two lobes.

Such a study is particularly interesting for further missions, which would determine the gravity field of asteroids, which would then be compared with the theoretical determination by this code. Other applications are envisaged, the authors mentioning asteroid mining.

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 Merry Christmas!

Plate tectonics on Europa?

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

Subduction on Earth

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

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

The satellite Europa

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

Numerical simulations of the phenomenon

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

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

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

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

Yes, it is possible

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

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

Triggering the subduction

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

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

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

The study and its authors

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

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…

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