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Published January 2018 | Published
Journal Article Open

Vital Signs: Seismology of Icy Ocean Worlds


Ice-covered ocean worlds possess diverse energy sources and associated mechanisms that are capable of driving significant seismic activity, but to date no measurements of their seismic activity have been obtained. Such investigations could reveal the transport properties and radial structures, with possibilities for locating and characterizing trapped liquids that may host life and yielding critical constraints on redox fluxes and thus on habitability. Modeling efforts have examined seismic sources from tectonic fracturing and impacts. Here, we describe other possible seismic sources, their associations with science questions constraining habitability, and the feasibility of implementing such investigations. We argue, by analogy with the Moon, that detectable seismic activity should occur frequently on tidally flexed ocean worlds. Their ices fracture more easily than rocks and dissipate more tidal energy than the <1 GW of the Moon and Mars. Icy ocean worlds also should create less thermal noise due to their greater distance and consequently smaller diurnal temperature variations. They also lack substantial atmospheres (except in the case of Titan) that would create additional noise. Thus, seismic experiments could be less complex and less susceptible to noise than prior or planned planetary seismology investigations of the Moon or Mars.

Additional Information

© 2018 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. Submitted 27 October 2016; Accepted 7 June 2017. We thank for their helpful input Sridhar Anandakrishnan, Bruce Banerdt, Jason Goodman, and Jennifer Jackson. This work was partially supported by strategic research and technology funds from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, and by the Icy Worlds node of NASA's Astrobiology Institute (13-13NAI7_2-0024). The research was carried out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. No competing financial interests exist.

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