Chaotic Terrain on Pluto, Europa, and Mars

Post contributed by Helle L. Skjetne, PhD candidate, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA.

Chaos terrain is formed by disruption of preexisting surfaces into irregularly shaped blocks with a “chaotic” appearance (Image 1). This typically occurs through fracturing (that can be induced by a variety of mechanisms), and the subsequent evolution of these blocks can follow several paths (Image 2). These distinctive areas of broken terrains are most notably found on Jupiter’s moon Europa, Mars, and Pluto. Although chaos terrains on these bodies share some common characteristics, there are also distinct morphological differences between them (Image 1). The geologic evolution required to shape this enigmatic terrain type has not yet been fully constrained, although several chaos formation models have been proposed. We studied chaotic terrain blocks on Pluto, Europa and Mars to infer information about crustal lithology and surface layer thickness (Skjetne et al. 2020).

Image 1: Examples of chaotic terrain “blocks” (referring to each mountain-like topographic feature). Chaos on Pluto in a) Tenzing Montes and b) Al-Idrisi Montes, respectively (New Horizons image at ~315 m px–1), c) Hydraotes Chaos on Mars (Mars Odyssey THEMIS daytime infrared global mosaic at 100 m px–1), and d) Conamara Chaos on Europa (Galileo 210–220 m px–1 East and West RegMaps).

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Ridged Plains on Europa Reveal a Compressive Past

Post Contributed by Dr. Erin Leonard, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology

Jupiter’s icy moon Europa has a geologically young surface (60-100 million years old), as evidenced by the sparsity of large impact craters. Studying the surface features on Europa allows insight into how resurfacing may have given it a youthful appearance. The majority of Europa’s young surface is made up of Ridged Plains terrain. This terrain has not been extensively studied before because it appears as a smooth and relatively bland in the global-scale images. However, in the few high-resolution images returned by the Galileo mission in the early 2000s, the Ridged Plains are revealed to consist of numerous ridges and troughs that have a range of morphologies—from crisscrossing each other in various directions to orderly sets of parallel structures (Image 1). But how did these ridges and troughs form?

LeonardFigure1

Image 1: A variety of examples of ridged plains on Europa. Note the linear to curvilinear systematic ridge traces in all examples: (A) observation E4ESDRKMAT02 at 26 m/pixel, (B) observation 19ESRHADAM01 at 66 m/pixel, (C) observation 12ESWEDGE_02 at 29 m/pixel, and (D) observation 12ESMOTTLE02 at 16 m/pixel.

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