Icy Enigma Unveiled: Researchers Crack the Code of Jupiter and Saturn’s Moons’ Radar Signatures

Icy Satellites Orbiting Jupiter and Saturn

A study co-authored by Southwest Research Institute Senior Research Scientist Dr. Jason Hofgartner explains the unusual radar signatures of icy satellites orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. Their radar signatures, which differ significantly from those of rocky worlds and most ice on Earth, have long been a vexing question for the scientific community. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Scientists unveil solutions to enigmatic radar characteristics of Jupiter and Saturn’s moons

A collaborative investigation led by Dr. Jason Hofgartner, Senior Research Scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, sheds light on the puzzling radar signatures of icy satellites orbiting Jupiter and Saturn. The distinct radar attributes of these celestial bodies, which deviate considerably from those of rocky planets and the majority of Earth’s ice, have long confounded researchers.

“Six different models have been published in an attempt to explain the radar signatures of the icy moons that orbit Jupiter and Saturn,” said Hofgartner, first author of the study, which was published in Nature Astronomy. “The way these objects scatter radar is drastically different than that of the rocky worlds, such as Mars and Earth, as well as smaller bodies such as asteroids and comets.”

The objects are also extremely bright, even in areas where they should be darker.

“When we look up at Earth’s moon it looks like a circular disk, even though we know it’s a sphere. Planets and other moons similarly look like disks through telescopes,” Hofgartner said. “While making radar observations, the center of the disk is very bright and the edges much darker. The change from center to edge is very different for these icy satellites than for rocky worlds.”

In collaboration with Dr. Kevin Hand of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hofgartner argues that the extraordinary radar properties of these satellites, such as their reflectiveness and polarization (the orientation of light waves as they propagate through space) is very likely to be explained by the coherent backscatter opposition effect (CBOE).

“When you’re at opposition, the Sun is positioned directly behind you on the line between you and an object, the surface appears much brighter than it would otherwise,” Hofgartner said. “This is known as the opposition effect. In the case of radar, a transmitter stands in for the Sun and a receiver for your eyes.”

An icy surface, Hofgartner explained, has an even stronger opposition effect than normal. For every scattering path of light bouncing through the ice, at opposition there is a path in the exact opposite direction. Because the two paths have precisely the same length, they combine coherently, resulting in further brightening.

In the 1990s, studies were published stating that the CBOE was one explanation for the anomalous radar signatures of icy satellites, but other explanations could explain the data equally well. Hofgartner and Hand improved the polarization description of the CBOE model and also showed that their modified CBOE model is the only published model that can explain all of the icy satellite radar properties.

“I think that tells us that the surfaces of these objects and their subsurfaces down to many meters are very tortured,” Hofgartner said. “They’re not very uniform. Icy rocks dominate the landscape, perhaps looking somewhat like the chaotic mess after a landslide. That would explain why the light is bouncing in so many different directions, giving us these unusual polarization signatures.”

The radar observations Hofgartner and Hand used were from the Arecibo Observatory, which was one of only two telescopes making radar observations of icy satellites until it was severely damaged by the collapse of its support structure, antenna, and dome assembly and subsequently decommissioned. The researchers hope to make follow-up observations when possible and plan to study additional archival data that may shed even more light on icy satellites and the CBOE, as well as radar studies of ice at the poles of Mercury, the Moon, and Mars.

Reference: “A continuum of icy satellites’ radar properties explained by the coherent backscatter effect” by Jason D. Hofgartner and Kevin P. Hand, 23 March 2023, Nature Astronomy.
DOI: 10.1038/s41550-023-01920-2

3 Comments on "Icy Enigma Unveiled: Researchers Crack the Code of Jupiter and Saturn’s Moons’ Radar Signatures"

  1. Fixed gravity for you. | May 22, 2023 at 12:18 pm | Reply

    “This is known as the opposition effect. In the case of radar, a transmitter stands in for the Sun and a receiver for your eyes.”

    Most radar telescopes harvest natural radio waves, like those making up the CMB.

    Looks like they’re trying to imply these moon images are radar illuminated. That’s some remarkable technology worth mentioning in the article explicitly, if so. Since it wasn’t mentioned, I’m not going to be automatically “garden pathed” into assuming these moon images, as vaguely described and not shown, are reflected radar, and a mental flag is thrown here for later consideration. Not enough time to read the reference article.

    • Fixed gravity for you. | May 22, 2023 at 12:33 pm | Reply

      For what it’s worth, nobody else I know about is suggesting the roughly octahedral shapes seen with e.g. Bennu and Ryugu are evidence of light-entraining gravitational omni-retro-reflection in cold matter accumulations, and such triaxial-type retro-reflections are most easily understood with the quarks of spinning cold hydrogen nuclei conforming to a triplet of orthogonal mutually-intersecting flat spinning disk masses.

  2. Fixed gravity for you. | May 24, 2023 at 7:12 am | Reply

    This reminds me of “dark photons.” The dish currents involved in so-called “dark photon” effects could be a feedback loop effect adding to the original dish currents in the ice-dominated target.

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