‘Frankenstein’ Moon: Tidal Forces From Uranus May Have Contributed to Miranda’s Bizarre Appearance

Miranda, the innermost of Uranus’ five moons, has a “Frankenstein”-like appearance: it looks as though it was pieced together from parts that didn’t quite fit together properly. Plus, it has incredibly diverse surface features including canyons up to 12 times deeper than Earth’s Grand Canyon, impact craters, cliffs, and parallel grooves called sulci.

Over the years, various hypotheses have been presented in an attempt to account for Miranda’s enigmatic appearance. First thought to be the result of a catastrophic impact, disintegration, and subsequent reassembly, scientists now believe that some of Miranda’s features might have been influenced by Uranus itself, and are the result of convection: thermally-induced resurfacing from tidal forces from the planet.

Miranda's Three Coronae
Three large, geometric-shaped features called coronae are visible on Miranda. To date, Venus and Miranda are the only bodies in our solar system on which coronae have been observed. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Miranda was discovered in 1948 by Gerard Kuiper. Although it is only 293 miles (471 kilometers) in diameter (approximately one-seventh that of Earth’s moon,) it has one of the strangest and most varied landscapes in our Solar System.

Central to the new research was analysis of three very large, geometric shaped features known as coronae, which are only found on one other planetary body. Coronae were first identified on Venus in 1983 by Venera 15/16 radar imaging equipment.

A leading theory about their formation has been that they form when warm, sub-surface fluids rise to the surface and form a dome. As the edges of the dome cool, the center collapses and warm fluid leak out its sides, forming a crown-like structure, or corona. Based on this premise, the question is then raised as to what mechanism/processes in Miranda’s past warmed its interior sufficiently to produce warm, sub-surface fluids that resulted in coronae formation. Scientists believe that tidal warming played an important role in the formation of the coronae, but the process by which this internal heating led to these features has remained unclear.

Extensive 3D computer simulations conducted by Brown University’s Noah P. Hammond and Amy C. Barr have produced results that are consistent with the three coronae seen on Miranda. In their paper titled, “Global Resurfacing of Uranus’s Moon Miranda by Convection,” Hammond and Barr summarize their results as follows:

“We find that convection in Miranda’s ice shell powered by tidal heating can generate the global distribution of coronae, the concentric orientation of sub-parallel ridges and troughs, and the thermal gradient implied by flexure. Models that account for the possible distribution of tidal heat ing can even match the precise locations of the coronae, after a reorientation of 60°.”

Using Saturn’s moon Enceladus as a baseline due to its similarity in size, composition, and orbital frequency to Miranda, original calculations estimate that as much as 5 GW of tidal dissipation power could be generated. Hammond and Barr’s simulation results indicate almost twice that amount of power would have been created:

“Simulations that match the thermal gradient from flexure have total power outputs of close to 10 GW , somewhat larger than the total power we predict could be generated during orbital resonance.”

Results from Hammond and Barr’s simulations provide a preliminary set of answers that strive to unlock the mysteries of Miranda’s bizarre appearance. Future simulations and studies into the complex nature of tidal heating will build upon these results to provide further insight into the enigmatic moon we call Miranda.

“Global Resurfacing of Uranus’s Moon Miranda by Convection,” was published online on 15 September 2014 in GEOLOGY, a journal of The Geological Society of America. You can read the abstract here.

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