What Are These Strange Scarlet Streaks Spotted on Tethys?

Resembling what the skin on my arms looks like after giving my cat a bath, the surface of Saturn’s moon Tethys is seen above in an extended-color composite from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft showing strange long red streaks. They stretch for long distances across the moon’s surface following the rugged terrain, continuing unbroken over hills and down into craters… and their cause isn’t yet known.

According to a NASA news release, “The origin of the features and their reddish color is currently a mystery to Cassini scientists. Possibilities being studied include ideas that the reddish material is exposed ice with chemical impurities, or the result of outgassing from inside Tethys. The streaks could also be associated with features like fractures that are below the resolution of the available images.”

The images were taken by Cassini during a flyby of the 660-mile-wide (1,062 km) Tethys on April 11, 2015 at a resolution of about 2,300 feet (700 meters) per pixel. They were acquired in visible green, infrared,  and ultraviolet light wavelengths and so the composite image reveals colors our eyes can’t directly perceive. The combination of this and the solar illumination needed to image this particular area as the spacecraft passed by are why these features haven’t been seen so well until now.

“The red arcs really popped out when we saw the new images,” said Cassini participating scientist Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. “It’s surprising how extensive these features are.”

Extended color mosaic of Tethys from Cassini images acquired on April 11, 2015. The region where the streaks are is outlined. Click for original hi-res version. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Extended color mosaic of Tethys from Cassini images acquired on April 11, 2015. The region where the streaks are is outlined. Click for original hi-res version. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

While the nature of Tethys’ streaks isn’t understood, the observations do indicate a relatively young age compared to the surrounding surface.

“The red arcs must be geologically young because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” said Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca. “If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.”

Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa's frozen surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)
Reprocessed Galileo image of Europa’s streaked surface by Ted Stryk (NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk)

Could these arcs be signs of an underground ocean or reservoir of briny liquid, like Enceladus’ tiger stripes (aka sulcae) or the streaks that crisscross Europa’s ice? Or are they the results of infalling material from one of Saturn’s other moons? More observations with Cassini, now in its eleventh year in orbit at Saturn, are being planned to “study the streaks.”

“We are planning an even closer look at one of the Tethys red arcs in November to see if we can tease out the source and composition of these unusual markings,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.

Source: NASA JPL