How Iapetus got its ridge

Dec 13, 2010
A ridge that follows the equator of Saturn's moon Iapetus gives it the appearance of a giant walnut. The ridge, photographed in 2004 by the Cassini spacecraft, is 100 kilometers (62 miles) wide and at times 20 kilometers (12 miles) high. (The peak of Mount Everest, by comparison, is 5.5 miles above sea level.) Scientists are debating how the ridge might have formed. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

For centuries, people wondered how the leopard got its spots. The consensus is pretty solid that evolution played a major role.

But it's only been five years since the arrival of high-resolution images of Saturn's bizarre Iapetus that the international planetary community has pondered the unique walnut shape of the large (735 kilometer radius) body, considered by many to be one of the most astonishing features in the solar system.

And there's no consensus as to how a mysterious large ridge that covers more than 75 percent of the moon's was formed. It's been a tough nut to crack.

But now a team including an outer solar system specialist from Washington University in St. Louis has proposed a giant impact explains the ridge, up to 20 kilometers tall and 100 kilometers wide.

William B. McKinnon, PhD, Washington University professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences, and his former doctoral student, Andrew Dombard, PhD, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), propose that at one time Iapetus itself had a satellite, or moon, created by a giant impact with another big body. The sub-satellite's orbit, they say, would have decayed because of tidal interactions with Iapetus, and it would have gradually migrated towards Iapetus. At some point, the researchers say, the tidal forces would have torn the sub-satellite apart, forming a ring of debris around Iapetus that would eventually slam into the moon near its equator.

"Imagine all of these particles coming down horizontally across the equatorial surface at about 400 meters per second, the speed of a rifle bullet, one after the other, like frozen baseballs," says McKinnon. "Particles would impact one by one, over and over again on the equatorial line. At first the debris would have made holes to form a groove that eventually filled up."

"When you have a debris ring around a body, the collisional interactions steal energy out of the orbit," explains Dombard. "And the lowest energy state that a body can be in is right over the rotational bulge of a planetary body — the equator. That's why the rings of Jupiter, , Uranus and Neptune are over the equator."

"We have a lot of corroborating calculations that demonstrate that this is a plausible idea," says Dombard, "but we don't yet have any rigorous simulations to show the process in action. Hopefully, that's next."

Saturn was photographed from near Iapetus by Cassini on Sept. 10, 2007, as the spacecraft prepared for its final approach to the moon. The spacecraft is about 3.3 million kilometers (2.1 million miles) from Saturn. As the image shows, Iapetus's orbit is tilted with respect to Saturn's. Since Saturn's other moons orbit in the same plane as the planet, they "see" Saturn's rings edge-on. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Other planetary scientists believe the ridge was created by endogenic (within the planet) activity such as volcanism or mountain-building forces.

"Some people have proposed that the ridge might have been caused by a string of volcanic eruptions, or maybe it's a set of faults," McKinnon notes. "But to align it all perfectly like that — there is just no similar example in the solar system to point to such a thing."

"There are three critical observations that any model for the formation of the ridge has to satisfy," says Dombard. "They are: Why the feature is sitting on the equator; why only on the equator, and why only on Iapetus. I think we have something here that explains all those observations."

Dombard will make a presentation on the preliminary findings Wed., Dec. 15, 2010, at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The team also included Andrew F. Cheng of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and Jonathan P. Kay, a graduate student at UIC.

Dombard says that Iapetus's Hill sphere — the zone close to an astronomical body where the body's gravity dominates satellites — is far bigger than that of any other major satellite in the , accounting for why Iapetus is the only body known to have such a ridge.

"Only Iapetus could have had the orbital space for the sub-satellite to then evolve and come down toward its surface and break up and supply the ridge," he says.

In 2007 Cassini flew within a few thousand kilometers of Iapetus's surface to take this dramatic picture of the ridge. A movie of the flyby is available at the NASA site devoted to Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

One of the supporting calculations the team performed was an estimation for how long it would take the orbit to decay so that the material would reach the point where the tidal forces would tear it apart into a debris disk.

"We're looking at only 100,000 years for a sub-satellite relatively close (to Iapetus) to a billion years for a body that's at the limit of where you could have a stable satellite in orbit around Iapetus," Dombard says. "These time scales are certainly plausible considering we have several billion years of time to work with. And longevity is important, because if it happens too fast all geological trace will be lost."

McKinnon notes that there are other examples in the solar system of giant impacts creating moons that orbit planets, notably our own Moon and Pluto's moon Charon.

"Our Moon and Pluto's, too, are actually retreating from the Earth and Pluto," he says. "But if we were to bring our Moon inside what is called geosynchronous altitude, that special altitude where TV broadcast satellites (and other objects) are able to hover over one spot on Earth as they orbit, then the Moon would actually spiral in toward Earth. Eventually our Moon would break into a ring of particles as it got very close and was torn apart by tides, and then those particles would enter the atmosphere and bombard the Earth at the equator."

Explore further: Lockheed Martin successfully mates NOAA GOES-R satellite modules

Related Stories

Saturn's Old Moon Iapetus Retains Its Youthful Figure

Jul 17, 2007

Saturn's distinctive moon Iapetus (eye-APP-eh-tuss) is cryogenically frozen in the equivalent of its teenage years. The moon has retained the youthful figure and bulging waistline it sported more than three ...

Cassini Prepares to Fly by Walnut-Shaped Moon

Sep 06, 2007

Cassini will make its only close flyby of Saturn's odd, two-toned, walnut-shaped moon Iapetus on Sept. 10, 2007, at about 1,640 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the surface.

Cassini Gets Close-Up Views of Saturn's Moon Iapetus

Sep 12, 2007

Cassini completed its closest flyby of the odd moon Iapetus on Sept. 10, 2007. The spacecraft flew about 1,640 kilometers (1,000 miles) from Iapetus' surface and is returning amazing views of the bizarre moon. ...

Saturn's Icy Moon Iapetus

Jan 04, 2005

NASA's Cassini spacecraft successfully flew by Saturn's moon Iapetus at a distance of 123,400 kilometers (76,700 miles) on Friday, Dec. 31. NASA's Deep Space Network tracking station in Goldstone, Calif., received ...

Kuiper Belt Moons Are Starting to Seem Typical

Jan 11, 2006

In the not-too-distant past, the planet Pluto was thought to be an odd bird in the outer reaches of the solar system because it has a moon, Charon, that was formed much like Earth's own moon was formed. But Pluto is getting ...

Recommended for you

Winter in the southern uplands of Mars

7 hours ago

Over billions of years, the southern uplands of Mars have been pockmarked by numerous impact features, which are often so closely packed that they overlap. One such feature is Hooke crater, shown in this ...

Five facts about NASA's ISS-RapidScat

7 hours ago

NASA's ISS-RapidScat mission will observe ocean wind speed and direction over most of the globe, bringing a new eye on tropical storms, hurricanes and typhoons. Here are five fast facts about the mission.

User comments : 7

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Au-Pu
not rated yet Dec 13, 2010
Is it possible for a polar or near polar impact to create such a ridge?
genastropsychicallst
1 / 5 (4) Dec 13, 2010
Up relative any down moonsspeed strange realistic charm some top planetslight bottom realize, unriddels my website. Starring better then Einstein but worser then Hawking ...
Husky
1 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2010
i think so, but it would show with a coriolis curl in it instead of a straight line, also the satellite would have to be nudged by another 3d body to appraoch the planet on a diffrent path than the energetically favoured gradual appoach, leading to the equator
Sonhouse
not rated yet Dec 13, 2010
Up relative any down moonsspeed strange realistic charm some top planetslight bottom realize, unriddels my website. Starring better then Einstein but worser then Hawking ...

Up relative any down moonsspeed strange realistic charm some top planetslight bottom realize, unriddels my website. Starring better then Einstein but worser then Hawking ...

Does anyone here know just what this dude said?
AstrophysicsKid
5 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2010
Up relative any down moonsspeed strange realistic charm some top planetslight bottom realize, unriddels my website. Starring better then Einstein but worser then Hawking ...


Does anyone here know just what this dude said?


It's not anyone, it's just a spambot programmed to take words and put them into a random configuration that's supposed to be meaningful (ex: Ray Kurzweil's Cybernetic Poetry Machine, or whatever it is, that uses your computer's idle time to write poetry ... you can download it as a screensaver, I think).

Notice that it's got all six quark flavors embedded in there: up / down, top / bottom, strange / charm. Interesting to watch them try to work, isn't it?
mysticshakra
1 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2010
Its amazing the nonsense that is passed off as rational science. This is about the dumbest explanation ever conceieved. These people need real jobs.
alq131
5 / 5 (1) Dec 14, 2010
mysticshakra is a pretty good spambot too, much better than the genastropsychicallst one.