Tag Archives: Mimas

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.

Resonances around the giant planets

Hi there! Today the release of the paper Classification of satellite resonances in the Solar System, by Jing Luan and Peter Goldreich, is the opportunity for me to present you the mean-motion resonances in the system of satellites of the giant planets. That paper has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal, but the topic it deals with is present in the literature since more than fifty years. This is why I need to detail some of the existing works.

The mean-motion resonances (MMR)

Imagine that you have a planet orbited by two satellites. In a convenient case, their orbits will be roughly elliptical. The ellipse results from the motion of a small body around a large spherical one; deviations from the exact elliptical orbit come from the oblateness of the central body and the gravitational perturbation of the other satellite. If the orbital frequencies of the two satellites are commensurate, i.e. if Satellite A accomplishes N revolutions around the planet, while Satellite B accomplishes (almost exactly) M revolutions, i.e. M orbits, N and M being integers, then the 2 satellites will be in a configuration of mean-motion resonance. It can be shown that the perturbation of A on B (respectively of B on A) will not average to 0 but have a cumulative effect, due to the repetition, at the same place, of the smallest distance between the two bodies, the smallest distance meaning the highest gravitational torque. A consequence of a MMR is the increase of the eccentricity of one of the satellites, or of both of them, and / or their inclinations… or only the inclination of one of them. In the worst case, this could result in the ejection of one of the satellites, but it can also have less catastrophic but not less interesting consequences, like the heating of a body, and the evolution of its internal structure… We will discuss that a little later.

A mean-motion resonance can be mathematically explained using the orbital elements, which describe the orbit of a satellite. These elements are

  • The semimajor axis a,
  • the eccentricity e. e=0 means that the orbit is circular, while e<1 means that the orbit is elliptical. For planetary satellites, we usually have e<0.05. With these two elements, we know the shape of the orbit. We now need to know its orientation, which is given by 3 angles:
  • the inclination i, with respect to a given reference plane. Usually it is the equatorial plane of the parent planet at a given date, and the inclination are often small,
  • the longitude of the ascending node Ω, which orientates the intersection of the orbital plane with the reference plane,
  • the longitude of the pericentre ϖ, which gives you the pericentre, i.e. the point at which the distance planet-satellite is the smallest. With these 5 elements, you know the orbit. To know where on its orbit the satellite is, you also need
  • the mean longitude λ.

Saying that the Satellites A and B are in a MMR means that there is an integer combination of orbital elements, such as φ=pλA-(p+q)λA+q1ϖA+q2ϖB+q3ΩA+q4ΩB, which is bounded. Usually an angle is expected to be able to take any real value between 0 and 2π radians, i.e. between 0 and 360°, but not our φ. The order of the resonance q is equal to q1+q2+q3+q4, and q3+q4 must be even. Moreover, it stems from the d’Alembert rule, which I will not detail here, that a strength can be associated with this resonance, which is proportional to eAq1eBq2iAq3iBq4. This quantity also gives us the orbital elements which would be raised by the resonance.

In other words, if the orbital frequency of A is twice the one of B, then we could have the following resonances:

  • λA-2λBA (order 1), which would force eA,
  • λA-2λBB (order 1), which would force eB,
  • A-4λBAB (order 2), which would force eA and eB,
  • A-4λB+2ΩA (order 2), which would force iA,
  • A-4λB+2ΩB (order 2), which would force iB,
  • A-4λB+2ΩAB (order 2), which would force iA and iB.

Higher-order resonances could be imagined, but let us forget them for today.

The next two figures give a good illustration of the way the resonances can raise the orbital elements. All of the curves represent possible trajectories, assuming that the energy of the system is constant. The orbital element which is affected by the resonance, can be measured from the distance from the origin. And we can see that the trajectories tend to focus around points which are not at the origin. These points are the centers of libration of the resonances. This means that when the system is at the exact resonance, the orbital element relevant to it will have the value suggested by the center of libration. These plots are derived from the Second Fundamental Model of the Resonance, elaborated at the University of Namur (Belgium) in the eighties.

The Second Fundamental Model of the Resonance for order 1 resonances, for different parameters. On the right, we can see banana-shaped trajectories, for which the system is resonant. The outer zone is the external circulation zone, and the inner one is the internal circulation zone. Inspired from Henrard J. & Lemaître A., 1983, A second fundamental model for resonance, Celestial Mechanics, 30, 197-218.
The Second Fundamental of the Resonance for order 2 resonances, for different parameters. We can see two resonant zones. On the right, an internal circulation zone is present. Inspired from Lemaître A., 1984, High-order resonances in the restricted three-body problem, Celestial Mechanics, 32, 109-126.

Here, I have only mentioned resonances involving two bodies. We can find in the Solar System resonances involving three bodies… see below.

It appears, from the observations of the satellites of the giant planets, that MMR are ubiquitous in our Solar System. This means that a mechanism drives the satellite from their initial position to the MMRs.

Driving the satellites into resonances

When the satellites are not in MMR, the argument φ circulates, i.e. it can take any value between 0 and 2π. Moreover, its evolution is monotonous, i.e. either constantly increasing, or constantly decreasing. However, when the system is resonant, then φ is bounded. It appears that the resonance zones are levels of minimal energy. This means that, for the system to evolve from a circulation to a libration (or resonant zone), it should loose some energy.

The main source of energy dissipation in a system of natural satellites is the tides. The planet and the satellites are not exactly rigid bodies, but can experience some viscoelastic deformation from the gravitational perturbation of the other body. This results in a tidal bulge, which is not exactly directed to the perturber, since there is a time lag between the action of the perturber and the response of the body. This time lag translates into a dissipation of energy, due to tides. A consequence is a secular variation of the semi-major axes of the satellites (contraction or dilatation of the orbits), which can then cross resonances, and eventually get trapped. Another consequence is the heating of a satellite, which can yield the creation of a subsurface ocean, volcanism…

Capture into a resonance is actually a probabilistic process. If you cross a resonance without being trapped, then your trajectories jump from a circulation zone to another one. However, if you are trapped, you arrive in a libration zone, and the energy dissipation can make you spiral to the libration center, forcing the eccentricity and / or inclination. It can also be shown that a resonance trapping can occur only if the orbits of the two satellites converge.

The system of Jupiter

Jupiter has 4 large satellites orbiting around: J1 Io, J2 Europa, J3 Ganymede, and J4 Callisto. There are denoted Galilean satellites, since they were discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. The observations of their motion has shown that

  • Io and Europa are close to the 2:1 MMR,
  • Europa and Ganymede are close to the 2:1 MMR as well,
  • Ganymede and Callisto are close to the 7:3 MMR (De Haerdtl inequality)
  • Io, Europa and Ganymede are locked into the Laplace resonance. This is a 3-body MMR, which resonant argument is φ=λ1-3λ2+2λ3. It librates around π with an amplitude of 0.5°.

This Laplace resonance is a unique case in the Solar System, to the best of our current knowledge. It is favored by the masses of the satellites, which have pretty the same order of magnitude. Moreover, Io shows signs of intense dissipation, i.e. volcanism, which were predicted by Stanton Peale in 1979, before the arrival of Voyager I in the vicinity of Jupiter, from the calculation of the tidal effects.

The system of Saturn

Besides the well-known rings and a collection of small moons, Saturn has 8 major satellites, i.e.

  • S1 Mimas,
  • S2 Enceladus,
  • S3 Tethys,
  • S4 Dione,
  • S5 Rhea,
  • S6 Titan,
  • S7 Hyperion,
  • S8 Iapetus,

and resonant relations, see the following table.

Satellite 1 Satellite 2 MMR Argument φ Libration center Libration amplitude Affected quantities
S1 Mimas S3 Tethys 4:2 1-4λ313 0 95° i1,i3
S2 Enceladus S4 Dione 2:1 λ2-2λ42 0 0.25° e2
S6 Titan S7 Hyperion 4:3 6-4λ77 π 36° e7

The amplitude of the libration tells us something about the age of the resonance. Dissipation is expected to drive the system to the center of libration, where the libration amplitude is 0. However, when the system is trapped, the transition from circulation to libration of the resonant argument φ induces that the libration amplitude is close to π, i.e. 180°. So, the dissipation damps this amplitude, and the measured amplitude tells us where we are in this damping process.

This study

This study aims at reinvestigating the mean-motion resonances in the systems of Jupiter and Saturn in the light of a quantity, kcrit, which has been introduced in the context of exoplanetary systems by Goldreich & Schlichting (2014). This quantity is to be compared with a constant of the system, in the absence of dissipation, and the comparison will tell us whether an inner circulation zone appears or not. In that sense, this study gives an alternative formulation of the results given by the Second Fundamental Model of the Resonance. The conclusion is that the resonances should be classified into two groups. The first group contains Mimas-Tethys and Titan-Hyperion, which have large libration amplitudes, and for which the inner circulation zone exists (here presented as overstability). The other group contains the resonances with a small amplitude of libration, i.e. not only Enceladus-Dione, but also Io-Europa and Europa-Ganymede, seen as independent resonances.

A possible perspective

Io-Europa and Europa-Ganymede are not MMR, and they are not independent pairs. They actually constitute the Io-Europa-Ganymede resonance, which is much less documented than a 2-body resonance. An extensive study of such a resonance would undoubtedly be helpful.

Some links

  • The paper, i.e. Luan J. & Goldreich P., 2017, Classification of satellite resonances in the Solar System, The Astronomical Journal, 153:17.
  • The web page of Jing Luan at Berkeley.
  • The web page of Peter Goldreich at Princeton.
  • The Second Fundamental Model of the Resonance, for order 1 resonances and for higher orders.
  • A study made in Brazil by Nelson Callegary and Tadashi Yokoyama, on the same topic: Paper 1 Paper 2, also made available by the authors here and here, thanks to them for sharing!.