New Horizons Day 2: Tectonic features on icy worlds
Posted By Emily Lakdawalla
2011/09/09 01:05 CDT
I began this blog entry eight days ago, in the car on the way downhill to Phoenix from Flagstaff, where I'd just spent two busy days at the New Horizons Workshop on Icy Surface Processes, but I haven't had time to return to it until today. The workshop was intended to help the New Horizons team predict what they might see at Pluto based on what we've seen on other icy worlds of the outer solar system. The first day of the conference was about chemistry and atmospheres, and I wrote that up a week ago. The second day was about geology and geophysics, which is my bailiwick, so I took a ton more notes. So many, in fact, that this long post just covers the first talk!
Simon Kattenhorn kicked the day off with a presentation on tectonics. I should probably define "tectonics." It's a field of study that is concerned with how the solid outer shells of worlds deform when they're put under stress. There are people who study tectonics "in the field" by mapping tectonic structures that we can see like mountains and rifts and faults and folds, and there are people who study it by developing computer models to examine where these stresses come from and how they're likely to deform rock or ice. Most people do both mapping and modeling. So it's a field that combines pretty pictures, fieldwork, and physics, a combination I always loved.
So, back to Kattenhorn's presentation. "Let's start," he said, "with what we know about the tectonics of Pluto." His next slide showed the current best image of Pluto and was otherwise blank but for the text "there are difficulties." Which earned him a laugh from the crowd.Of course this was meant as an explanation of why in a meeting about Pluto Kattenhorn was going to proceed to talk about other icy bodies in the solar system, a common theme for the rest of the day. The idea is to compare the wide variety of icy moons and determine trends with size, composition, or solar system location, and try to infer from those trends what we might find at Pluto and Charon. Here's a kind of old size comparison I put together of these bodies -- I need to update it, not all of the sizes are the most up-to-date numbers, but it's good enough to provide context. If you just consider size, note that Pluto naturally lumps in with the bigger icy moons including the Galilean satellites of Jupiter plus Titan and Triton, while Charon naturally lumps in with the mid-sized icy moons of Saturn and Uranus.
So, are either Pluto or Charon likely to display tectonic features? Kattenhorn explained that moons that have elliptical instead of circular orbits are more likely to show signs of past geologic activity. That's because elliptical orbits cause tidal heating, where the tidal bulge moves back and forth across the moon's surface with every orbit, which causes frictional heating. Youthful surfaces are even more likely when the moon has an outer ice crust that is separated from its core by a liquid ocean layer. Europa and Enceladus have the most elliptical orbits among these satellites, and have the most youthful tectonized surfaces. We know Europa has a global ocean. The jury's still out on Enceladus.
A notable exception to the elliptical-orbit-causes-tectonics paradigm is Triton, which presently has a circular orbit. But the fact that it orbits Neptune retrograde (that is, unlike all the other big moons in the solar system, Triton moves clockwise instead of counterclockwise in its orbit, if you view it from its north pole) is a strong indication that it began its life elsewhere in the solar system, probably in the Kuiper belt, and it was captured into orbit. Its initial orbit around Neptune would have been very elliptical, and it would have experienced very strong tidal heating until its orbit circularized.
There are other things besides eccentricity that can force tectonics. These include nonsynchronous rotation (making the strong tidal bulge rotate around the moon with every orbit), true polar wander (reorientation of the icy crust in response to changes in mass distribution that might result from volcanism or impacts); orbital recession (which would change the magnitude of the tidal bulge); despinning (which causes a change in shape from oblate to more spherical); internal differentiation (the separation of the stuff in the interior into density-stratified layers, which changes the moment of inertia); ocean freezing (which causes the moon to expand in volume); and ice shell thickening.
Of these forces, nonsynchronous rotation, orbital recession, and despinning are likely important for Pluto and Charon because the two close-orbiting, similar-sized bodies exert large gravitational forces on each other. The current idea for their origin is the same as the Earth-Moon system -- a "big whack" of two similar-sized bodies resulted in the formation of a mutually orbiting pair of objects. At the outset, Pluto and Charon would have been much closer to each other than they are now, and they would have been rotating much faster, raising huge tides on each other that should have driven tectonic activity. Now, though, they're in mutually synchronous rotation, so over their history they both despun, and the angular momentum of the system was conserved by the recession of Charon from Pluto. Kattenhorn showed the stress fields for these three mechanisms -- where you'd expect compressive (squeezing) and where you'd expect tensional (pulling apart) forces from each.
Then Kattenhorn took a tour across the icy moons to show the kinds of features that result from these forces. Ready? Here we go.
High resolution images of the highly fractured icy surface of Europa. These images were taken by the Galileo spacecraft. The above images highlight the three most common morphologies of cycloids on Europa (a) trough (b) ridge (c) band. Credit: NASA / JPL / Marshall and Kattenhorn
There seems to be a progression from these simple troughs to ridges to ridge complexes to bands. Ridges are ubiquitous on Europa -- the whole surface is riddled with them. They appear to be huge tall things but most Galileo images of them are taken with very low sun angles to emphasize topography; they actually don't stand more than a few hundred meters above the surrounding plains, and have slopes less than 20 degrees. There is absolutely no agreement on what mechanism causes them to form. Are they places where ice has extruded? Is something happening underneath them to warp the surface up? Does frictional rubbing create heat that results in expansion and uplift? Is it a thermally weak zone that facilitates contraction? As for whether they're found anywhere but Europa, Kattenhorn suggested that Enceladus' tiger stripes could be produced by a similar mechanism, and that the ridges in Triton's cantaloupe terrain might be the same things. You can see a possible Triton ridge in the left side of the mosaic below.
A newly reprocessed version of the Voyager 2 highest-resolution mosaic of images across Triton's surface reveals about 100 very small craters (5 to 20 kilometers in diameter) peppering its surface. The original images were taken with the camera pointed not straight down but across the surface at an angle, and they were very long exposures, so the smallest craters tend to be elongated and have a "double exposure" appearance. Credit: NASA / JPL / LPI (Paul Schenk)
There are also garden-variety normal faults, which are a bit easier for geologists to wrap their heads around because they appear to form similarly to those found on Earth. Normal faults are where the crust is pulling apart, and one side slides down a sloping face on the other side. Sometimes two normal faults that face each other bound a block that drops downward in between them -- that's a rift valley. Saturn's moons have lovely normal faults. You can see some dramatically lit at the left edge of this view of Dione.
Fractures near Dione's south pole are more rounded and subdued than the ones farther to the north, indicating multiple generations of geologic activity on this moon. This view was captured by Cassini during a distant flyby on August 1, 2005. Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
Enki Catena, Ganymede
View of a chain of craters named Enki Catena on Jupiter's moon, Ganymede. This chain of 13 craters probably formed by a comet which was pulled into pieces by Jupiter's gravity as it passed too close to the planet. Soon after this breakup, the 13 fragments crashed onto Ganymede in rapid succession. The Enki craters formed across the sharp boundary between areas of bright terrain and dark terrain, delimited by a thin trough running diagonally across the center of this image. The ejecta deposit surrounding the craters appears very bright on the bright terrain. Even though all the craters formed nearly simultaneously, it is difficult to discern any ejecta deposit on the dark terrain. This may be because the impacts excavated and mixed dark material into the ejecta and the resulting mix is not apparent against the dark background. North is to the bottom of the picture and the sun illuminates the surface from the left. The image, centered at 39 degrees latitude and 13 degrees longitude, covers an area approximately 214 by 217 kilometers. The resolution is 545 meters per pixel. The image was taken on April 5, 1997 at 6:12:22 UTC at a range of 27282 kilometers by Galileo. Credit: NASA / JPL / Brown University
Astypalaea Linea on Jovian ice moon Europa is the broad smooth region running through these images recorded by the Galileo spacecraft in 1998. The pictures are different computer processed versions of the same mosaic -- on the left, small scale details have been enhanced while on the right, large scale features are emphasized. In both versions, the bold criss-crossing ridges believed to result from the upwelling of new material through cracks in the surface ice are apparent. But more easily seen on the right are recently recognized gentle rises and dips, about 15 kilometers across, which likely formed as the icy surface was compressed by the addition of the new material. Further evidence that stress is folding Europa's surface is offered by the presence of smaller cracks and wrinkles more easily seen on the left. These span the width of the broad swells suggestive of anticlines and synclines familiar to geologists on planet Earth. Credit: NASA / JPL / Prockter and Pappalardo / caption by APOD
Which of these things might we see on Pluto and Charon? It's hard to say, but Kattenhorn's talk made clear that an extensive body of research on tectonic features on similar worlds will help inform our interpretation of what we do see when we fly past. And since Pluto has very likely experienced some pretty strong tectonic stresses, it's quite likely that its surface will be as exciting as those it sits next to in the comparison picture I put together at the top of this post. Will it look like Europa? Or Triton? Or Ganymede? Or will it have its own brand of tectonic features, like little Enceladus? Wait and see!
This is already such a long post that I think it needs to go up by itself. And it's just the first talk from day 2! Oy. More to come.