Accretion of Saturn's mid-sized moons during the viscous spreading of young massive rings: Solving the paradox of silicate-poor rings versus silicate-rich moons

Research areas:
  • Sebastien Charnoz
  • Aurelien Crida
  • Julie C. Castillo-Rogez
  • Valery Lainey
  • Luke Dones
  • Ozgur Karatekin
  • Gabriel Tobie
  • Stephane Mathis
  • Christophe Le Poncin-Lafitte
  • Julien Salmon
The origin of Saturn's inner mid-sized moons (Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione and Rhea) and Saturn's rings is debated. Charnoz et al. [Charnoz, S., Salmon J., Crida A., 2010. Nature 465, 752-754] introduced the idea that the smallest inner moons could form from the spreading of the rings' edge while Salmon et al. [Salmon, J., Charnoz, S., Crida, A., Brahic, A., 2010. Icarus 209, 771-7851 showed that the rings could have been initially massive, and so was the ring's progenitor itself. One may wonder if the mid-sized moons may have formed also from the debris of a massive ring progenitor, as also suggested by Canup [Canup, R., 2010. Nature 468, 943-946]. However, the process driving mid-sized moon accretion from the icy debris disks has not been investigated in details. In particular, Canup's (2010) model does not seem able to explain the varying silicate contents of the mid-sized moons (from 6% to 57% in mass). Here, we explore the formation of large objects from a massive ice-rich ring (a few times Rhea's mass) and describe the fundamental properties and implications of this new process. Using a hybrid computer model, we show that accretion within massive icy rings can form all mid-sized moons from Mimas to Rhea. However in order to explain their current locations, intense dissipation within Saturn (with Q(p) < 2000) is required. Our results are consistent with a satellite origin tied to the rings formation at least 2.5 Gy ago, both compatible with either a formation concurrent to Saturn or during the Late Heavy Bombardment. Tidal heating related to high-eccentricity post-accretional episodes may induce early geological activity. If some massive irregular chunks of silicates were initially present within the rings, they would be present today inside the satellites' cores which would have accreted icy shells while being tidally expelled from the rings (via a heterogeneous accretion process). These moons may be either mostly icy, or, if they contain a significant amount of rock, already differentiated from the ice without the need for radiogenic heating. The resulting inner mid-sized moons may be significantly younger than the Solar System and a similar to 1 Gyr formation delay is possible between Mimas and Rhea. The rings resulting from this process would evolve to a state compatible with current mass estimates of Saturn's rings, and nearly devoid of silicates, apart from isolated silicate chunks coated with ice, interpreted as today Saturn's rings' propellers and ring-moons (like Pan or Daphnis). (C) 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.