Studies of geologic faulting on icy moons aid exploration of extraterrestrial watery worlds | Science & Technology

On the surface of many of the icy moons in our solar system, scientists have documented strike-slip faults, those that occur when fault walls move past one another sideways, as is the case at the San Andreas fault in California. Two recently published studies led by University of Hawai’i at Manoa earth and space scientists document and reveal the mechanisms behind these geologic features on the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, and Jupiter’s largest moon, Ganymede.

“We are interested in studying shear deformation on icy moons because that type of faulting can facilitate the exchange of surface and subsurface materials through shear heating processes, potentially creating environments conducive for the emergence of life,” said Liliane Burkhard, lead author of the studies and research affiliate at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology in the UH Manoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

When an icy moon moves around its parent planet, the gravity of the planet can cause tidal flexing of the surface of the moon, which can drive geologic activity such as strike-slip faulting. Tidal stresses vary as the moon changes distance from its planet because the moon’s orbit can be elliptical rather than circular.

Titan, a frozen ocean world

The extremely cold temperatures on the surface of Titan mean that water ice acts as rock that can crack, fault, and deform. Evidence from the Cassini spacecraft suggests that tens of miles below the frozen surface, there is a liquid water ocean. Further, Titan is the only moon in our solar system with a dense atmosphere, which, uniquely, supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle of methane clouds, rain, and liquid flowing across the surface to fill lakes and seas, placing it among a handful of worlds that could potentially contain habitable environments.

The NASA Dragonfly mission will launch in 2027, with a planned arrival on Titan in 2034. The novel rotorcraft lander will conduct several flights on the surface,…

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