Poring over images of Saturn’s icy moon Iapetus, planetary scientists have discovered massive landslides in which the falling ice travels much farther than should be possible given the coefficient of friction of the falling ice.
When the rimwall of Iapetus’ 5 mile deep Malun crater broken off, it surged 22 miles across the crater floor.
The reason, says Prof William McKinnon, also from Washington University, is Iapetus spectacular topography.
One possibility is that the falling ice creates friction that melts a thin layer of ice that lubricates the falling ice.
A similar mechanism might be at work in earthquakes, he said, and he called on experimental physicists to check out the possibilities.
It has a pronounced bulge at the equator, possibly because it was spinning faster when it froze solid.
He said: ‘Not only is the moon out of round, but the giant impact basins are very deep, and there is this great mountain ridge that is 20 kilometres (12 miles) high, far higher than Mount Everest.
Studying the Cassini images, McKinnon and his team reported in the journal Nature Geoscience, they identified 30 massive ice avalanches — 17 that had plunged down crater walls and 13 that had swept down the sides of the mountain range.
Careful measurements of the heights from which the ice had fallen and the distance of the runout were not consistent with the most popular theories for the extraordinary mobility of long runout landslides, but didn’t exclude them either, McKinnon said.
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