Tag Archives: internal structure

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…

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.

Predicting the chemical composition of (4)Vesta

Hi there! Today I present you a study entitled Chlorine and hydrogen degassing in Vesta’s magma ocean, by Adam R. Sarafian, Timm John, Julia Roszjár and Martin J. Whitehouse. This study has recently been published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. The goal here is, from the chemical analysis of meteorites which are supposed to come from Vesta, understand the evolution of its chemical evolution. In particular, how the degassing of its magma ocean impacts its chemical evolution.


I have presented the small planet (4)Vesta in that post. Basically, it is one of the largest Main-Belt asteroids, with a mean radius of some 500 km. The craters at its surface and the dynamical models of the early Solar System show that Vesta has been intensively bombarded. The largest of these impacts were energetic enough to melt Vesta and trigger its differentiation between a pretty dense core, a shallow magma ocean and a thin crust.

Despite having been visited by the spacecraft Dawn, the magma ocean has not been detected. Its presence is actually confirmed by the analyses of meteorites which fell on Earth.

The HED meteorites

Every day, about 6 tons of material hit the surface of the Earth, after having survived the atmospheric entry. Mineralogists split these meteorites into several groups. 5% of these meteorites are HEDs, for Howardite-Eucrite-Diogenites. These are achondritic basaltic meteorites, which are supposed to present similarities with Vesta. This hypothesis has been proposed in 1970 after comparison of the spectrum of Vesta and the one of these meteorites, and enforced since by the observations and theoretical works. So, it is now accepted that these meteorites come from Vesta or bodies similar to it, and studying them is a way to study the chemical composition of Vesta.
In this study, only the Eucrites will be addressed. They represent most of the HEDs, and contain 2 phosphates: the merrillite and the apatite. Moreover, they are systematically depleted in volatile elements, compared to carbonaceous chondrites and the Earth.

Chemical analysis

The authors have analyzed the chemical composition of 7 samples of eucrites, which were found on Earth. They present a variety of thermal alteration. Comparing them would be like watching a movie of the process of evolution of the material during the degassing in the magma ocean. The analyses were conducted on two sites: the Natural History Museum Vienna, in Austria, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (MA, USA). The involved technology is the scanning electron microscopy, which consists in obtaining images from the interaction of the sample with a focused bean of electrons, supplemented with an energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer. This spectrometer gives the spectral signature of the interactions of the electrons with the rock sample, and so reveals the elements which constitute it.

The authors were particularly interested in measuring the concentrations of halogen (fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine), of stable isotopes of the chlorine, isotopes of hydrogen, and water. Comparing the relative concentration of these elements in the seven samples would give information on their volatilization during the outgassing process of the magma ocean, in conditions that do not exist on Earth.


The samples show different compositions in volatile elements (H2, H20, and metal chlorides), which show that there is some outgassing in Vesta’s magma ocean. The authors show in particular a large variability in the ratio [Cl]/[K], i.e. chlorite with respect to potassium. This means that not only the thermal evolution tends to reject volatile elements, but also that they are effectively ejected. This might be a concern since the ocean cannot be seen at the surface of Vesta. Anyway, this does not preclude outgassing, either through the crust, which is supposed to be thin, and/or with the assistance of giant impacts, which created craters deep enough to reach the ocean.

This way, we have a signature of the history of a planetary body in material found on the Earth. These results might have implications beyond Vesta, i.e. could be extended to other dwarf planets, and so give us information on the chemical evolution of the Solar System.

I hope you enjoyed this article. As usual, I am interested in your feed-back. So please, leave me some comments, share it, and happy new year!

To know more…

  • The study, which can also be found on ResearchGate, thanks to the authors for sharing!
  • The webpage of Adam Robert Sarafian, grad student at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (USA)
  • The webpage of Timm John, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
  • The webpage of Julia Roszjár, Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria
  • The webpage of Martin Whitehouse, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm, Sweden