An Unusual Gas Giant in a Red Dwarf System

The gas giant GJ 3512 b does not particularly stand out at first glance. About 30 light years from the Sun, it orbits its host star in 204 days, discovered by radial velocity methods by the CARMENES collaboration, which is all about finding planets around small stars. But look more deeply and you discover what makes this find provocative. GJ 3512 b turns out to be a gas giant with about half the mass of Jupiter, and small red dwarfs like this one aren’t supposed to host such worlds.

In fact, GJ 3512 b is at least an order of magnitude more massive than what we would expect from current theoretical models, making it an interesting test case for planet formation. Core accretion models assume the gradual agglomeration of material in a circumstellar disk, with small bodies banging into each other and growing over time until their gravity is sufficient to draw in an atmosphere from the surrounding gas. This gas giant defies the model, evidently having formed directly from the disk through gravitational collapse.

Image: Comparison of GJ 3512 to the Solar System and other nearby red-dwarf planetary systems. Planets around solar-mass stars can grow until they start accreting gas and become giant planets such as Jupiter, in a few millions of years. However, up to now astronomers suspected that, except for some rare exceptions like GJ 876, small stars such as Proxima, TRAPPIST-1, Teegardern’s star, and GJ 3512 were not able to form Jupiter mass planets. Credit: Guillem Anglada-Escude – IEEC/Science Wave, using (Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International; CC BY 4.0).

As for the host star, GJ 3512 has about 12 percent the mass of the Sun. The disks of gas and dust that surround such low mass stars are assumed to contain insufficient material to form planets like this. Consider: The Sun is 1050 times heavier than Jupiter, while the mass ratio between GJ 3512 and GJ 3512 b is 270. A much more massive debris disk would be needed to build this planet the conventional way, but if a disk of more than a tenth of the stellar mass is present, the star’s gravity cannot keep the disk stable. Gravitational collapse can then occur, as in star formation, but no disks this massive have been found around young red dwarf stars. Is this new exoplanet evidence that such disks can indeed form and be productive?

Things get even trickier when we consider other planets in the same system. At least one other planet is thought to exist, and the elliptical orbit of GJ 3512 b offers evidence for the gravitational effect of a possible third planet just as massive, one that may have been ejected. So now we have a small red star that would have needed to produce multiple massive planets, taking us well beyond current models. In a paper on this work from researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, the University of Lund in Sweden and the University of Bern, the authors argue for gravitational disk collapse as the only viable method of formation.

“Until now, the only planets whose formation was compatible with disk instabilities were a handful of young, hot and very massive planets far away from their host stars,” says Hubert Klahr, who heads a working group on the theory of planet formation at the MPIA. “With GJ 3512 b, we now have an extraordinary candidate for a planet that could have emerged from the instability of a disk around a star with very little mass. This find prompts us to review our models.”

Image: Visualisation of the radial velocity (RV) measurement time-series and residuals obtained with CARMENES. Panel a illustrates how the RV of GJ 3512 (vertical axis) changes with time indicated in days since 8 December 2014, 12:00 p.m. UT (Universal Time, horizontal axis). HJD stands for Heliocentric Julian Day. Both the visual (blue symbols) and the infrared (red symbols) channels agree well. The black solid curve is the best orbital fit to the data. After subtracting the contribution of GJ 3512 b, panel b shows the residual, which indicates the presence of a long-term period hinting to a second planet. Panels c and d depict the residuals of the best overall orbital fit for the two CARMENES channels. Credit: Morales et al. (2019)/MPIA.

Considering pebble accretion vs. gravitational instability of the disk around this star, the scientists must look at a time early in formation when the disk was still massive relative to the star. The authors were unable to model an accretion process that would explain this system. But the competing model of gravitational instability results in a disk that is gravitationally unstable in a range of viscosities and surface densities at distances below 100 AU. From the paper:

The estimated masses of the fragments formed are less than that of Jupiter, consistent with the mass of GJ 3512 b. Except for unrealistically low values of a [disk viscosity], fragmentation of the disk occurs at radii of ?10 au, so the planets must have migrated a substantial distance from their formation locations to their present positions. This is possible given the large mass of the disk with respect to the planet, and is often seen in numerical simulations of disk fragmentation. For realistic viscosity a > 0.01, disk fragmentation typically occurs at radii of a few tens of au, and the total disk mass within this radius is ~30 MJ. Disks cannot extend too far beyond this fragmentation radius, because the total disk mass would become extremely large (up to 1 M? within 100 au). Thus, the planetary system around GJ 3512 favors the gravitational instability scenario as the formation channel for giant planets around very-low-mass stars.

If you’re looking for a comparison, consider TRAPPIST-1, a star with many of the characteristics of GJ 3512. Here we have seven planets with masses equal to or less than the mass of the Earth, and the ‘bottom up’ accretion model fits with observation. But GJ 3512 b all but forces us to look at models where the planet forms directly from gravitational collapse in the disk. We’d still like to know why GJ 3512 b hasn’t migrated closer to its star, an indication that the mysteries of this system may prove fodder for a great deal of future analysis.

The paper is Morales, et al. “A giant exoplanet orbiting a very low-mass star challenges planet formation models”, Science 27 September 2019 (abstract).


Looking Back, and Ahead

Centauri Dreams was launched as a website in 2004 for a specific reason. I was wrapping up my book of the same name and wanted to build a simple database of news stories related to the angles on interstellar flight I had covered in the book. I intended the site to be used for no other purpose, and didn’t turn on the comments function until a year after the site went live. My plans were for a second edition of the book, but I began to realize as the website grew that to avoid instant obsolescence, the Web was my best friend. This site, then, began serving as a de facto second edition and I’ve kept it running now for 15 years.

Sometimes I’m asked how long I plan to keep the site going, and the answer is simply that I plan to be here for years to come. I have no thoughts about closing down Centauri Dreams. But as my work in the space community has grown, I’ve also become involved in various other aerospace efforts to which I’ve contributed, and right now I’m in the midst of a report on a particular kind of interstellar mission that demands a lot of transcription of talks, extensive note-taking along the way, and drawing together a lot of different viewpoints and research.

In practical terms, while Centauri Dreams isn’t going away, this also means that my posts are occasionally going to become sporadic, as they will be in the next few weeks. I’ll post when I can, but I have to devote the bulk of my attention to this particular project, which leaves little time for anything else in my workday. So bear with me, please. The comments are still live and I’ll do moderation on them at least twice a day. Feel free to comment when you have the urge. Once I get the current effort wrapped up, things should return to something like normalcy.


2I/Borisov: Naming the Interstellar Visitor

Congratulations to Gennady Borisov, the Crimean amateur who discovered the object now officially designated as 2I/Borisov (with a 0.65-metre telescope he built himself!). That ‘I’ in the designation points to the object’s interstellar origins, and picks up the nomenclature used with the first interstellar object in our system, 1I/‘Oumuamua. We’ve examined thousands of comets over the years but have found none with an orbit as hyperbolic as 2I/Borisov. That means that while the comet’s trajectory is being affected by the Sun, it’s not going to be captured by it.

What’s ahead: 2I/Borisov reaches perihelion on 7 December 2019, at which point it will be 2 astronomical units from the Sun and also 2 AU from Earth. It reaches its brightest levels in the southern sky in December and January and then heads back out toward the interstellar deep. So far, it appears that 2I/Borisov is a few kilometers in diameter, and we’ve also learned — via the Gran Telescopio Canarias (Canary Islands) — that its spectrum resembles typical cometary nuclei. The new interstellar visitor appears to be more straightforward than 1I/‘Oumuamua.

But considering that 1I/‘Oumuamua appeared a scant two years before 2I/Borisov, the inference is clear that such objects may be fairly numerous. Keep in mind that new instrumentation about to come online will expand our catalog, allowing us to investigate exoplanetary systems in ways beyond radial velocity and transits, through the spectra of objects within our own system.

Image: A comet from beyond our Solar System, as imaged by the Gemini Observatory. The image of the newly discovered object, named 2I/Borisov, was obtained on the night of 9–10 September 2019 using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph on the Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Credit: Gemini Observatory/NSF/AURA.

There is little doubt about 2I/Borisov’s cometary nature, given that observations have shown a condensed coma and a short tail. The IAU’s decision to give it a designation as an interstellar object follows the computation of its orbit by the IAU Minor Planet Center, with confirmation of the hyperbolic orbit from JPL’s Solar System Dynamics Group. Now we wait to learn how often to expect such objects and how much information we will be able to tease out of them.


Marc Millis: Testing Possible Spacedrives

Marc Millis, former head of NASA’s Breakthrough Propulsion Physics project, recently returned from another trip to Germany, where he worked with Martin Tajmar’s SpaceDrive project at Germany’s Technische Universität Dresden. Recent coverage of the ongoing experimental work into spacedrives in both the popular and scientific press has raised public interest, leading Millis to explain in today’s essay why and how the techniques for studying these matters are improving, and how far we have to go before we have something definitive. Millis is in the midst of developing an interstellar propulsion study from a NASA grant even as he continues to examine advanced propulsion concepts and the methodologies with which to approach them.

by Marc Millis

Two recent articles, one in Scientific American [1] and the other in Acta Astronautica [2], prompted this update about the experimental tests of possible spacedrives. In short, the experimental methods are improving, but definitive results are not yet in hand. While this update is mostly on the “Mach Effect Thruster,” it also touches on the infamous “EmDrive,” as well as a refresher on the general quest for spacedrive physics.

First, what is a spacedrive? Presently, a spacedrive is still a goal rather than a proven device. The ambition is to find a fundamentally different way to propel spacecraft rather than rockets or sails. Rockets are limited by having to carry their entire journey’s reaction mass with them (propellant). Sails are limited by one-directional photons (or particles) from an external source. Imagine, instead, if there was some way for a spacecraft to interact with its surrounding spacetime to move in any direction and be limited only by the amount of available energy. That ambition is the essence of a spacedrive.

That detail – of interacting with spacetime to induce motion – is a matter of undiscovered physics. That makes it harder to grasp, harder to explain, and harder to solve. It’s easier to grasp engineering challenges that are based on known physics, since there are already operating principles to cite. With spacedrives, the operating principles are works-in-progress – more akin to lines of inquiry than having complete packages ready for scrutiny. Though theories for faster-than-light warp drives do exist (one type of spacedrive), the physics of the required negative energy is still debated – which itself is a prerequisite to devising how to engineer a warp drive. In addition, though there are experimental replications of thrusts from possible spacedrives, separating experimental artifacts from actual thrusts is also, still, a work in progress – and the main point of this update.

Before getting to the latest experiments, here is a bit more background behind the challenges of a spacedrive. At first blush, such wishful thinking might seem to violate conservation of momentum – a crucial detail. Conservation of momentum is easy to grasp for a rocket; the rearward-blasted propellant matches the forward momentum of the spacecraft. The situation is less obvious with spacedrives. There are a least 3 approaches to address conservation of momentum: 1) using a reaction mass indigenous to space or spacetime, 2) negative inertia, or 3) exploring the physics about inertial reference frames – the backdrop upon which the conservation laws are defined.

The majority of this update is related to the 3rd option – inertial frames. For new readers, a more complete introduction to various approaches and issues of both spacedrives and faster-than-light flight are spelled out in the book Frontiers of Propulsion Science [3]. If you’re curious about that broader coverage, that book and subsequent papers are one starting point.

Back to inertial frames and conservation laws: An inertial frame is such a ubiquitous property of spacetime that it is often taken for granted. It is what allows accelerated motion to be felt – the reference frame for Newton’s F=ma and the subsequent conservation laws. If you’ve never thought about it before, this can be hard to grasp because it’s so foundational. One useful book is Mach’s Principle: From Newton’s Bucket to Quantum Gravity [4], which articulates several different attempts to represent how inertial frames exist. What makes this book particularly useful is that it compiled workshop discussions about the differing approaches. Those discussions are illuminating.

One of those attempts is called “Mach’s Principle,” which asserts that the surrounding matter of the universe gives rise to the inertial frame properties of space. Or stated differently, “inertial here, because of matter, out there.” A similar perspective is something called “inertial induction.” The implication of these is that inertia is more than just a property of mass. Inertia is an interaction between mass and spacetime – and perhaps with undiscovered nuances.

Perhaps an analogy might help. When you plot trajectories on graph paper, you usually don’t give much thought to the paper. The paper is just some fixed, reliable background upon which the more interesting details are plotted. But what if the paper was not uniform nor constant over time? What if the trajectories might vary because of the properties of the paper itself? In this case, the rules for plotting on graph paper would have to be updated to account for the rules about the paper itself. Here, the graph paper is analogous to an inertial frame and “plotting trajectories” is analogous to Newton’s F=ma and subsequent conservation laws. If there are deeper details about inertial frames and their effect on inertia, then Newton’s F=ma and the conservation laws would have to be refined to incorporate those finer details.

In terms of Einstein’s general relativity – an established refinement of Newton’s laws – inertial frames and momentum conservation are treated only locally. I’m not sure quite how to put this in words, so I’ll defer to examples. With the warp drive, Einstein’s equations describe the local effects on spacetime from the warp drive itself, but cannot describe how (or if) momentum is conserved across a whole journey, encompassing the departure and arrival points as a total picture. Similarly, the momentum conservation of traveling through a wormhole cannot be described. While the local effects at each throat can be described, the bigger picture encompassing both the entry and exit throats and the mass that went through, cannot. There is room for more advances in physics.

Mach’s Principle and Inertial Induction are still open investigations in general physics, though not a dominant theme. Their relevance to spacedrives is because Mach’s Principle was a starting point for what is now called the “Mach Effect Thruster.” It began around 1990, when a reexamination of Mach’s Principle led to new hypotheses about fluctuating inertia, which then led to a 1994 patent for a propulsion concept [5]. Experiments followed. By 2016, three other labs were observing similar thrusts, which led NASA to award a 2017 NIAC grant for further investigations.

The original theory, from James Woodward of the University of California at Fullerton, showed that the inertia of a mass would fluctuate with a change of power of that mass. At first, varying the power of the mass took the form of charging and discharging a capacitor – where the capacitor was that mass. By doing this with two capacitors, while also changing the distance between them (via a piezoelectric actuator), a propulsive force was claimed to be generated (see figure and caption).

Figure 1. Transient inertia applied for propulsion: While the rear capacitor’s inertia is higher and the forward capacitor lower, the piezoelectric separator is extended. The front capacitor moves forward more than the rear one moves rearward. Then, while the rear capacitor’s inertia is lower and the forward capacitor higher, the piezoelectric separator is contracted. The front capacitor moves backward less than the rear one moves forward. Repeating this cycle shifts the center of mass of the system forward.

Since the center of mass of such a system moves without the opposite motion of a reaction mass, it appears to violate conservation of momentum, but does it? Since inertia is no longer constant, the usual equations do not fit without some reconsideration. This is a debated issue – debated in a constructive way. One version asserts how momentum conservation is indeed satisfied [6]. Others would prefer that the original fluctuating inertia equation be further advanced to explicitly address the conservation laws. Another desired refinement is to have the original equations explicitly connected to the experimental hardware – to show what dimensions of that hardware are the most critical.

Armed with an apparently working device, Woodward and his team concentrated on improving the experiments rather than that additional theoretical work. Over the years of making modifications to the device to amplify the effect, the ‘fluctuating inertia’ capacitors and the piezoelectric actuator were merged. Now a stack of piezoelectric disks serves both the functions of the inertial fluctuations and the oscillating motion. The power that affects the inertia now includes the mechanical motion too.

This is where the Scientific American article is worth mentioning. That article gives a decent review of the history and status of the Mach Effect Thruster (which also goes by the name “Mach Effect Gravity Assist (MEGA) Device”) as conducted by Jim Woodward and Heidi Fearn. It includes some perspectives that are useful to read separately, instead of needing to repeat those here. It addresses other aspects of the bigger picture of pursuing these kinds of research inquires.

The other article that prompted this update is in the journal Acta Astronautica. In addition to Woodward’s team, a group at the Technical University of Dresden, Germany, led by Martin Tajmar, secured funding for a broader project to research spacedrives in 2017. That group is one of the 3 labs that replicated the Woodward results in 2016. The recent Acta Astronautica article is an update on their experimental hardware and procedures, in preparation for careful testing of the Mach Effect Thruster, the EmDrive, and other possible spacedrive effects.

A preceding work by Tajmar that fed into this latest update was an attempt to advance Woodward’s original fluctuating inertia equations into a form that mapped to the experimental hardware [7]. With such equations a new thruster could be designed to maximize the thrust and experimental predictions could be made for the existing hardware. To span the possibility of debated assumptions (such as what kind of power affects the inertia; mechanical, electrical, other?), more than one version of such equations was derived for future tests.

Though this paper is more about the testing methods, in the course of that preparatory work, it became evident that none of the analytical models match the data. The models predicted correlations between the thrust and operating frequencies that was not observed. If the Mach Effect Thruster is indeed working, it is not producing thrust per these models derived from the original theory. Hence, that thruster is now considered a “black box” – a term used to denote a device whose operating principles are unknown, and where the test program concentrates on seeing if, and under what circumstances, it functions.

To test the thrusters, they are placed on the end of a torsion beam that can twist horizontally (vertical axis). The term “torsion” means that the beam is sprung, its rotation is limited and proportional to how much thrust occurs at the tip. This is the same concept as the Cavendish balance that measured Newton’s gravitational constant. When the thruster is pointed one way, the beam deflects one direction. When pointed in the other direction, the beam deflects in the other direction. And the third important orientation is when the thruster is pointed in a direction where it should not deflect the beam. By comparing the actual deflections in each direction (and under different operating conditions), the performance of the thruster can be assessed.

Deciphering actual thrust from all the other things that can look like thrust is difficult. A major clue for a false positive is if the beam is deflected when the thruster is not pointed in a thrusting direction. Another major clue is revealed when the power is delivered to a dummy device instead of to the thruster – to see if simply delivering the power through the apparatus affects the apparatus. Another possible effect is from the peculiarities of the balance beam itself while powered up (e.g. thermal drift of the electronics). When testing the thruster in a thrusting direction, there might be slight shifts in the center of mass as the thruster warms up – where that thermal effect might look like thrust. And then there is the challenge of how vibration might shift the position of the balance beam. There are more possible side-effects than these, but these are the major ones.

Another false positive that merits separate mention is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is not an instrumentation phenomenon, but a psychological phenomenon. After people reach a conclusion, they tend to filter evidence to fit their preconceived notion, rather than letting the data speak for itself. It happens way more often than it should. It is so insidious that we seldom know when we are guilty of it ourselves. Our bias skews, well, our bias. The important lesson here, for you the audience, is how to spot those biases when you come across new articles. If an article sounds like they it’s trying to prove or disprove, rather than decipher and conclude, then its findings are likely skewed.

The Acta Astronautica article comes across like an investigation in progress, rather than a conclusion in search of evidence (or advocacy). The article outlines the performance limits of their hardware and the procedures used to distinguish the aforementioned side-effects from potential genuine thrust. To measure a claimed thrust of 2 µN, the thrust stand has demonstrated a sensitivity of 0.1 µN, as well as plots of the background noise showing less than ± 0.02 µN. The procedures include calibration with known forces before and after each run, measuring the thermal drift of the electronics, and automated operation that repeats a set of runs 140 times to get ample data to average. The tests are conducted in vacuum and the thrusting directions can be changed during a test sequence remotely without having to break vacuum or risk affecting other configuration settings.

Other than the aforementioned conclusion that the Mach Effect Thruster is not following analytical models, there are no other conclusions to report. Sample data is shown for the Mach Effect Thruster (more than one version) and the EmDrive, but only to illustrate the measurements that can be made, rather than any attempt to report on the viability of either of those thrusters.

In closing

Conferences are coming up where more progress will be reported. Consider this article a preparation for interpreting these next series of papers. Carl Sagan’s adage, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” is exactly the tactic here. The results only have as much substance as the fidelity of the tests. This most recent progress bodes well for that fidelity. The prior tactic of “quick and cheap” experiments to test other claimed devices turned out to be neither quick nor cheap. Promotional material and sensationalistic articles are easy to create. Reliable findings are harder, less glamorous, and take longer.

The implications of a genuine new propulsion method, plus the independent replications, are driving the perseverance to wade through these complications. If it turns out that a new propulsion method is discovered, then not only will we have a more effective way to propel spacecraft, but also a new window into the lingering mysteries of physics. The less obvious value is if it turns out to be a false positive. In that case the years-long ambiguity will be resolved, and the lessons learned will make it easier to assess future claims of new thrusters.


1. Scoles, S. (2019). The Good Kind of Crazy. Scientific American, 321, 59-65.

2. Kößling, M., Monette, M., Weikert, M., & Tajmar, M. (2019). The SpaceDrive project-Thrust balance development and new measurements of the Mach-Effect and EMDrive Thrusters. Acta Astronautica, 161, 139-152.

3. Millis, M. G., & Davis, E. W. (Eds.). (2009). Frontiers of propulsion science. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

4. Barbour, J. B., & Pfister, H. (Eds.). (1995). Mach’s principle: from Newton’s bucket to quantum gravity (Vol. 6). Springer Science & Business Media.

5. Woodward, J. F. (1994). U.S. Patent No. 5,280,864. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

6. Wanser, K. H. (2013). Center of mass acceleration of an isolated system of two particles with time variable masses interacting with each other via Newton’s third law internal forces: Mach effect thrust. J. of Space Exploration, 2(2).

7. Tajmar, M. (2017). Mach-Effect thruster model. Acta Astronautica, 141, 8-16.


Enceladus Lights Up Saturn’s Inner Moons

In his wonderful account of the rocket that never was (Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship, 2002), George Dyson discusses his father’s thoughts on taking the craft to the moons of Saturn. Freeman Dyson and other Orion colleagues wanted to land on a moon to pick up propellant, but thought the moons of Jupiter were trickier than Saturn’s because of the depth of the Jovian gravity well. Anyway, Enceladus was a kind of beacon, and it was there Dyson fixed his attention. George Dyson quotes Freeman on the matter:

“We knew very little about the satellites in those days. Enceladus looked particularly good. It was known to have a density of .618, so it clearly had to be made of ice plus hydrocarbons, really light things; which were what you need both for biology and for propellant, so you could imagine growing your vegetables there. Five-one-thousandths g on Enceladus is a very gentle gravity, just enough so that you won’t jump off.”

As George noted, Enceladus was a long way from La Jolla, CA (where General Atomic had moved in 1958 to a 300-acre facility above the beaches near Torrey Pines), some 9 astronomical units, but the views would be spectacular. Imagine standing on Enceladus, where Saturn would appear vastly larger than Earth’s moon appears to us. Planet and rings would fill the sky, “changing phase from hour to hour, illuminated by the pale light of a distant sun.”

Image: Mosaic of the surface of Enceladus captured by Cassini on 9th October 2008 from an altitude of 25 kilometres. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

We now know just how prescient Freeman Dyson was about the virtues of Enceladus, armed with Cassini data about geysers and an internal ocean. I always keep an eye on further insights from Cassini about this intriguing moon, and notice that at the EPSC-DPS joint meeting in Geneva this week, a team of researchers under Alice Le Gall (LATMOS-UVSQ, Paris) has analyzed some 60 radar observations of Saturn’s inner moons taken by Cassini. The result: Previous reports from these data underestimated their radar brightness by a factor of two.

All of Saturn’s inner moons show high radar reflectivity, with Enceladus itself being twice as bright as Europa, which is the brightest of Jupiter’s satellites. Significant variation turns up among the moons of Saturn, with Enceladus having the highest radar albedo, Titan the lowest.

Image: This is Figure 1 from the precis of Dr. Le Gall’s presentation. Caption: Averaged 2.2-cm disk-integrated radar albedos of Saturn’s major satellites. The error bars show the dispersion of the dataset for each satellite. Credit: Alice Le Gall.

What we’re witnessing among these inner moons is a fascinating interplay of material being pumped from the internal ocean of Enceladus into nearby space, affecting Tethys and Mimas. These three moons also interact with Saturn’s E-ring, which delivers water ice to their surfaces. The dazzling reflectivity that attracted the Orion team is largely the result of fresh water-ice particles from Enceladus, which acts as what Dr. Le Gall calls a ‘snow-cannon’ to coat all three surfaces. In other words, it snows on these worlds, in the sense that the particles fall back onto Enceladus and precipitate onto the surfaces of the other moons as well. Says Le Gall:

“The super-bright radar signals that we observe require a snow cover that is at least a few tens of centimetres thick. However, the composition alone cannot explain the extremely bright levels recorded. Radar waves can penetrate transparent ice down to [a] few meters and therefore have more opportunities to bounce off buried structures. The sub-surfaces of Saturn’s inner moons must contain highly efficient retro-reflectors that preferentially backscatter radar waves towards their source.”

Just what these ‘structures’ are is not known, though radar observations of Enceladus have shown subsurface features including pinnacles and ice blocks, along with fractured terrain. Le Gall’s team has developed models to test what specific shapes can act as effective reflectors, also testing whether enhanced reflection is a matter of random scattering events. This is a work in progress:

“So far, we don’t have a definitive answer,” adds Le Gall. “However, understanding these radar measurements better will give us a clearer picture of the evolution of these moons and their interaction with Saturn’s unique ring environment. This work could also be useful for future missions to land on the moons.”

The presentation is Le Gall et al., “Saturn’s inner moons: why are they so radar-bright?” in EPSC Abstracts Vol. 13, EPSC-DPS 2019-454-2, 2019 EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2019 (abstract).