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Astronomers Solve Puzzle of the Mountains That Fell From Space

Unknown Lamer posted about 5 months ago | from the just-a-crashed-ring-station dept.

Space 51

KentuckyFC (1144503) writes "Iapetus, Saturn's third largest moon, was first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft on 31 December 2004. The images created something of a stir. Clearly visible was a narrow, steep ridge of mountains that stretch almost halfway around the moon's equator. The question that has since puzzled astronomers is how this mountain range got there. Now evidence is mounting that this mountain range is not the result of tectonic or volcanic activity, like mountain ranges on other planets. Instead, astronomers are increasingly convinced that this mountain range fell from space. The latest evidence is a study of the shape of the mountains using 3-D images generated from Cassini data. They show that the angle of the mountainsides is close to the angle of repose, that's the greatest angle that a granular material can form before it landslides. That's not proof but it certainly consistent with this exotic formation theory. So how might this have happened?

Astronomers think that early in its life, Iapetus must have been hit by another moon, sending huge volumes of ejecta into orbit. Some of this condensed into a new moon that escaped into space. However, the rest formed an unstable ring that gradually spiraled in towards the moon, eventually depositing the material in a narrow ridge around the equator. Cassini's next encounter with Iapetus will be in 2015 which should give astronomers another chance to study the strangest mountain range in the Solar System."

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How about... (1)

fyngyrz (762201) | about 5 months ago | (#46769877)

...a collapsed ring system?

Re:How about... (1)

fyngyrz (762201) | about 5 months ago | (#46769943)

Guess I should have been a little more explicit. I meant, as distinguished from one that required another object impact. Just an original ring system.

Re:How about... (3, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46770407)

It is generally accepted that planetary ring systems are not stable, permanent features but are a result of collisions, gravitational disintegration, or other disruption of an existing satellite. The rings, over time, will eventually re-form into a new satellite, or be lost to space or to the parent object. So there is really no such thing as an 'original ring system'.

Re:How about... (1)

neonv (803374) | about 5 months ago | (#46770617)

The wikipedia article [wikipedia.org] discusses different theories of the mountain range formation. A collapsed ring system is one of them. The article here is introducing a new theory.

Re:How about... (4, Insightful)

Jarik C-Bol (894741) | about 5 months ago | (#46772501)

No its not, the article talks about the idea that a collision with another body both caused the inclined orbit of Lapetus, and created enough ejected materials to form a unstable ring system that fell back to the surface, causing the fancy walnut shaped moon we all know and love. The article is more about how they gathered and interpreted the data that re-enforces this hypothesis. If saturn where solid, I'm sure it would have a similar mountain range, or at least an equatorial band of impact craters from parts of its ring system that have fallen over the millennia.

Re:How about... (2)

icebike (68054) | about 5 months ago | (#46774787)

Exactly, this article essentially is an elaboration on the Wiki Article's theory # 3.

They make much of the angle of repose, but the angle of repose is not a constant. Gravity of the planet/moon affects this angle, (which I am sure they accounted for), but so does the water content, or any other potentially binding agent (frozen CO2, etc) of the material. Even the shape of the grains of sand can affect the Angle of Repose.

Re:How about... (2)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 5 months ago | (#46772389)

See a doctor.

Er... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46769881)

"That's not proof but it certainly consistent with this exotic formation theory."

So they didn't solve the puzzle.

Re:Er... (1)

Shatrat (855151) | about 5 months ago | (#46770401)

They solved the puzzle, but didn't compare their solution to the one printed upside down on the bottom of the page yet.

Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1, Interesting)

Toad-san (64810) | about 5 months ago | (#46769947)

Iapetus has only a fraction of Earth's gravity (Iapetus radius 735 KM, Earth radius 6371 KM, you do the math, after figuring out the relative density for yourself). Wouldn't a hugely smaller gravity significantly affect the angle of repose they carry on about in that referenced scientific paper? I doubt you can compare the angle of repose of rounded particles (or snow and hail) on Earth with that of a very small _and airless!_ moon.

But I'll leave that to the astrophysicists to work out.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (5, Insightful)

RavenousRhesus (2683045) | about 5 months ago | (#46770191)

Iapetus has only a fraction of Earth's gravity (Iapetus radius 735 KM, Earth radius 6371 KM, you do the math, after figuring out the relative density for yourself). Wouldn't a hugely smaller gravity significantly affect the angle of repose they carry on about in that referenced scientific paper? I doubt you can compare the angle of repose of rounded particles (or snow and hail) on Earth with that of a very small _and airless!_ moon.

But I'll leave that to the astrophysicists to work out.

From the references in that exact article you criticize (but clearly didn't read):

"Kleinhans, M. G., Markies, H., de Vet, S. J., in 't Veld, A. C., Postema, F. N., 2011. Static and dynamic angles of repose in loose granular materials under reduced gravity. Journal of Geophysical Research 116, E11004."

So, yes, I'd say they did take into account the low gravity.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1)

Toad-san (64810) | about 5 months ago | (#46780041)

The article I read. The references I read, but didn't look up (since I don't subscribe to the Journal of Geophysical Research). If they were using reduced gravity data, they should've said so in the body of the article. They didn't. That's my point: we don't know WHAT they took into account.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1)

RavenousRhesus (2683045) | about 5 months ago | (#46780353)

I didn't read the reference material either. All I did is read the reference section and see that they are references a paper with "granular materials under reduced gravity" in the title. It's by no means a stretch of the imagination to assume that this scientific paper actually uses the results of a referenced scientific paper in its own analysis. That's kind of how the process works.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (3, Informative)

danbert8 (1024253) | about 5 months ago | (#46770201)

Astrophysicists my ass... Geologists have this covered! From "Static and dynamic angles of repose in loose granular materials under reduced gravity"
http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/... [harvard.edu]

Until now it has been assumed that the angles of repose are independent of gravitational acceleration. The objective of this work is to experimentally determine whether the angles of repose depend on gravity. In 33 parabolic flights in a well-controlled research aircraft we recorded avalanching granular materials in rotating drums at effective gravitational accelerations of 0.1, 0.38 and 1.0 times the terrestrial value. The granular materials varied in particle size and rounding and had air or water as interstitial fluid. Materials with angular grains had time-averaged angles of about 40 degrees and with rounded grains about 25 degrees for all effective gravitational accelerations, except the finest glass beads in air, which was explained by static electricity. For all materials, the static angle of repose increases about 5 degrees with reduced gravity, whereas the dynamic angle decreases with about 10 degrees. Consequently, the avalanche size increases with reduced gravity.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1)

icebike (68054) | about 5 months ago | (#46774955)

Yes, but his experimental platform is far from perfect, wouldn't you agree?

He's talking parabolic flights in powered aircraft, which lasts, what, maybe 30 seconds [wikimedia.org] , and could not easily be shielded from all sorts of vibrations.

So the good geologist's work probably can't account for a moon-sized platform, or a mixed particle size, or the inclusion of water ice, etc. The angles do vary with gravity, grain size, grain polishing, binding agent inclusion, etc.

Still the Subject study uses a wide definition of the Angle of Repose ("anything between about 25 to 40 depending on size and type of particles involved."), and they suggest that all (or most) of these observed ridge shapes fit within that definition. While they mention water ice in their theory they don't seem to acknowledge its ability to drastically increase the Angle of Repose, easily up to 60 degrees in terrestrial gravity).

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46770213)

Forces like friction depend on the force exerted by each surface on the other. This in turn depends on the gravity, not directly the mass of the object. So, even though the gravity is different on Iapetus, so are the other forces, most likely with almost exactly the same scale. I wouldn't be surprised if the angle of repose was pretty constant even when the gravity changes.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 5 months ago | (#46772417)

But I'll leave that to the astrophysicists to work out.

Why do you presume they didn't take it into account already?

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1)

Jarik C-Bol (894741) | about 5 months ago | (#46772527)

probably, but at the same time, the low gravity does allow for the fallen ring system to have built up into a mountain, instead of pounding a long valley around the equator in the form of impact craters.

Re:Doesn't Gravity Affect Angle of Repose? (1)

almitydave (2452422) | about 5 months ago | (#46774451)

In case someone were wondering, Iapetus' equatorial surface gravity is about 2.3% that of Earth's, or 1/43rd as strong. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iapetus_(moon) [wikipedia.org]

Nope (1)

RavenousRhesus (2683045) | about 5 months ago | (#46770005)

Erroneous. It was our space overlords running an experiment.

Re:Nope (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46770965)

Looks more like our space overlords were using a mold and didn't clean up the seam.

Solved? (1)

Arker (91948) | about 5 months ago | (#46770181)

Does not sound like they solved it. Headline should be "Astronomers Ponder Puzzle..." perhaps?

Re:Solved? (4, Insightful)

radtea (464814) | about 5 months ago | (#46770487)

Does not sound like they solved it. Headline should be "Astronomers Ponder Puzzle..." perhaps?

No, it should be, "Astronomers Increase Plausibility of Exotic Formation for Iapetus Mountain Range".

"Proof" is not something science does. Nor does it do "disproof", despite Karl Popper's well-marketed myth of method.

Science is the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference, and the only thing Bayesian inference can ever do is increase or decrease the plausibility of some proposition or propositions. Plausibilities range between epsilon and omega = 1 - epsilon (0 and 1 are epistemic errors, the term for which is "faith").

So in this case they have done more than "pondering the puzzle": they have contributed to knowledge (which is by its nature uncertain) by increasing the plausibility of the proposition that these mountains "fell from space".

medium.com (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46770189)

medium.com link. Sorry, no. Last time I decided: never again.

Re:medium.com (1)

mbone (558574) | about 5 months ago | (#46770387)

Just read the original paper [arxiv.org] .

(Yes, I know it was one of the links in the OP, but...)

Iapetus (1)

rossdee (243626) | about 5 months ago | (#46770349)

"Iapetus, Saturn's third largest moon, was first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft on 31 December 2004."

Really? First photographed in 2004? Didn't any of the earlier probes like Voyager take pictures of it?

I seem to remember something about strange light and dark patterns on that moon from a book i read many years ago.
I think it was written by a "distinguished but elderly scientist"

Re:Iapetus (4, Funny)

tyme (6621) | about 5 months ago | (#46770517)

Yes, Iapetus was photographed by Voyager 2 in 1981 (link to NASA image with metadata listed [nasa.gov] ), and I would suspect that there were earth based images taken well before that (but none that would show any detail).

Who would have expected a summary on Slashdot to be carelessly wrong about something factual and easily verified?

Re:Iapetus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46770793)

If the sentence you quoted is true, it would not be a contradiction if Iapetus was photographed by something other than Cassini at an earlier date.

Re:Iapetus (2)

cusco (717999) | about 5 months ago | (#46770973)

New year's eve 2004 was the first time that Cassini imaged Iapetus. At least that was how I read the sentence.

Re:Iapetus (1)

mbone (558574) | about 5 months ago | (#46772023)

Yeah, me too. It could be ambiguous, but you kinda have to work at it.

Re:Iapetus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46773343)

I agree...

Although it is the fourth unmanned space probe to visit Saturn, Cassini first entered into orbit in 2004... Therefore on my first read through, I interpreted the sentence to mean that lapetus was first imaged by Cassini on 31 December 2004...

It is part of the fact that the Cassini probe is flying multiple passovers of Saturn and it's moons... And also that lapetus has been (or will be) imaged several times by Cassini but 31 December 2004 was the first time it was imaged by Cassini...

Re:Iapetus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46773367)

Before I get blasted for my ambiguity, I meant to specify that Cassini first entered into SATURN's orbit in 2004... Cassini was launched in 1997...

Re:Iapetus (1)

radarskiy (2874255) | about 5 months ago | (#46773299)

Your errors in parsing the date clause notwithstanding, which has been covered by others, the latter part of your comment is also off point: Clarke was not working from pictures of Iapetus. He completely made up his description, based on zero evidence, which just happened to turn out to me similar to the actual two-tone coloring. No monolith, though.

Re:Iapetus (1)

blue trane (110704) | about 5 months ago | (#46774817)

Clarke was probably aware of the following (from wikipedia's article on Iapetus [wikipedia.org] ):

In the 17th century, Giovanni Cassini observed that he could see Iapetus only on the west side of Saturn and never on the east. He correctly deduced that Iapetus is locked in synchronous rotation about Saturn and that one side of Iapetus is darker than the other, conclusions later confirmed by larger telescopes.

Re:Iapetus (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46773525)

You can interpret this two ways:

1) lapetus was first photographed in 2004...
or
2) lapetus was first photographed by Cassini in 2004...

Number 1 is wrong since other spacecraft photographed lapetus prior to Cassini (and prior to 2004)... Number 2 is correct because Cassini had not photographed lapetus before...therefore it was first photographed BY CASSINI on 31 December 2004...

Re:Iapetus (1)

R3d M3rcury (871886) | about 5 months ago | (#46773961)

It was first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft on 31 December 2004. It was first photographed by any spacecraft in 1981.

Like 1999 KW4 (1)

mbone (558574) | about 5 months ago | (#46770365)

You mean, like the asteroid 1999 KW4 [wikipedia.org] ? I'd say that the source of the Iapetus ridge has been pretty obvious since the Science [sciencemag.org] papers [sciencemag.org] on that body.

Simple answer? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46770913)

Saturn's ring material falling onto the Iapetus. This "mountain range" is technically an equatorial ridge, but as anyone who's seen an hour glass it's not hard to imagine (-- disclaimer) the same thing is happening on the moon of a planet with it's own ring system.

At 15.5 degrees to Saturn's equator doesn't seem like it's that far "off-ring" to prevent this from happening, though that Iapetus in tidally locked (that is it's rotational period is equal to it's orbital period, and so always presents the same face to Saturn, and therefore also it's direction of motion) should mean the equatorial ridge is a bit higher on Iapetus' forward-facing hemisphere (facing the direction of it's orbit), and lower on it's back-facing hemisphere. Should be fairly straight-forward, if not easy, to see if this evidence is there.

Re:Simple answer? (3, Insightful)

mbone (558574) | about 5 months ago | (#46771135)

Saturn's ring material falling onto the Iapetus. This "mountain range" is technically an equatorial ridge, but as anyone who's seen an hour glass it's not hard to imagine (-- disclaimer) the same thing is happening on the moon of a planet with it's own ring system.

No. In that theory, the satellites interior to Iapetus, i.e., Mimas, Enceladas,Tethys, Dione, Rhea and (maybe) Titan would all have similar equatorial ridges, which they do not.

Quite interesting (4, Informative)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about 5 months ago | (#46771491)

The explanation is interesting. The moon is half the diameter of our moon, which means 8 times smaller in volume, and possibly mass. Tidally locked to a much bigger planet Saturn, compared to earth. The only thing against "mountain range fell from the sky scenario" is that, we normally do not see 1300 km long objects in space that are just 10 to 15 km in diameter. One possibility is that a loosely accreted comet was pulled into a long string by the gravity of Saturn, (Remember? the Schoemaker - Levy comet colliding with Jupiter was pulled in to a string of rocks. [google.com] ). And this moon got in the way and got whacked in the process. May be the accretion of matter into a spherical moon did not quite achieve completion.

Till we see 1300km long and 10 to 10 km diameter asteroids in space, we just have to file it under, "it is the best we could do, under these circumstances".

Re:Quite interesting (1)

dpiven (518007) | about 5 months ago | (#46772731)

we normally do not see 1300 km long objects in space that are just 10 to 15 km in diameter.

Space-whale turds?

Re:Quite interesting (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46773855)

Hmm...

You are explicitly assuming large objects "1300 km long objects" - whereas they are discussing much smaller objects, most may be much smaller than a metre, probably smaller than sand grains.

The exact size is not too crucial, but at any rate much much smaller than 1300 km long.

They are definitely not saying each mountain is a separate large object, but built up of many much smaller objects.

Re:Quite interesting (1)

140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) | about 5 months ago | (#46777745)

That moon is too small to have strong gravitational field gradient to stretch any object into a long string.

The best source of large number of smaller meter sized rocks aligned in a long line is the rings of Saturn nearby. Since the moon is tidally locked to Saturn, and its orbit is oblique, if it passes the rings it would possibly pass at the same angle and same orientation every time. If it keeps picking up stuff from the rings, it could provide the source rocky rain drops all meter size or smaller that all will accumulate at the same place. It gels with their theory. Need to go back and read to see if they were speculating the rings to be the "source" of mountain that fell from the sky.

Medium.com total fail (0)

Crass Spektakel (4597) | about 5 months ago | (#46771497)

OMG that medium.com site is exceptionally hard to read. giant font, 90% empty screen. Butt Ugly.

I will avoid this shit as much as possible.

Re:Medium.com total fail (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 5 months ago | (#46772433)

If only.

It seems to be catching on around teh interwebs.

It's a parting line (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 months ago | (#46772831)

from the moon mold, obviously.

Roche limit (1)

micahraleigh (2600457) | about 5 months ago | (#46773731)

The summary seems to reflect the way 2 bodies in space interact when they pass the Roche limit and the smaller body dissolves due to tidal forces.

Or (1)

koan (80826) | about 5 months ago | (#46774099)

Since it's composed of ice something from the center, (water) ejected leaving a cavity and the 2 halves "pinched" and extruded a ridge.

Plea to God (1)

Tablizer (95088) | about 5 months ago | (#46776517)

Do it again, do it again!

have a nice day www.blossomsquare.com (1)

Blossom Square (3608145) | about 5 months ago | (#46778109)

Astronomers think that early in its life, Iapetus must have been hit by another moon, sending huge volumes of ejecta into orbit. Some of this condensed into a new moon that escaped into space.

"Iapetus, Saturn's third largest moon, was first p (1)

Blossom Square (3608145) | about 5 months ago | (#46778267)

"Iapetus, Saturn's third largest moon, was first photographed by the Cassini spacecraft on 31 December 2004. The images created something of a stir. good job blossomsquare.com
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