Tectonic patterns on reoriented and despun planetary bodies

Isamu Matsuyama, Francis Nimmo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Several processes may produce global tectonic patterns on the surface of a planetary body. The stresses associated with distortions of biaxial figures due to despinning or reorientation were first calculated by Vening Meinesz [Vening Meinesz, F.A., 1947. Trans. Am. Geophys. Union 28 (1), 1-23]. We adopt a mathematically equivalent, but physically more meaningful treatment for distortions associated with rotation. The new approach allows us to find analytic solutions for the general case of stresses associated with distortions of biaxial or triaxial planetary figures. Distortions of biaxial figures may be driven by variations in rotation rate, rotation axis orientation, or the combination of both. Distortions of triaxial figures may be driven by the same mechanisms and/or variations in tidal axis orientation for tidally deformed satellites. While the magnitude of the resulting stresses depends on the adopted elastic and physical parameters, the expected tectonic pattern is independent of these parameters for these mechanisms. Reorientation of the rotation/tidal axis alone is expected to produce normal/thrust faulting provinces enclosing the initial rotation/tidal poles, and thrust/normal faulting provinces enclosing the final rotation/tidal poles. Reorientation of both the rotation and tidal axis results in a wide variety of tectonic patterns for different reorientation geometries. On Europa, the tidal axis reorientation which generally accompanies rotation axis reorientations may provide an alternative explanation for tectonic features that have been interpreted as evidence for non-synchronous rotation. The observed tectonic pattern on Enceladus is more easily explained by a large reorientation (∼90°) of the rotation axis, than by rotation rate variations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)459-473
Number of pages15
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2008


  • Enceladus
  • Europa
  • Rotational dynamics
  • Satellites
  • Tectonics
  • surfaces

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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