Unraveling the Secrets of Icy Moons: Titan and Ganymede’s Geologic Mysteries Explored

Scientists uncover the mechanisms behind strike-slip faults on Saturn’s moon Titan and Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, shedding light on the potential for habitable environments and the geologic history of these icy worlds.

In a quest to understand the geologic activity on icy moons in our solar system, researchers from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa have made significant strides in unraveling the mysteries of Titan and Ganymede. These two moons, orbiting Saturn and Jupiter respectively, have long fascinated scientists due to their potential for harboring habitable environments. By studying the mechanisms behind strike-slip faults, the scientists hope to gain insights into the exchange of materials and the conditions necessary for the emergence of life.

Titan’s Frozen Ocean and Earth-like Hydrological Cycle

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is a frozen ocean world with a unique atmosphere that supports an Earth-like hydrological cycle. Liliane Burkhard, lead author of the studies and a research affiliate at the Hawai’i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, explains that the extreme cold temperatures on Titan’s surface cause water ice to act like rock, resulting in cracking, faulting, and deformation. Evidence suggests the presence of a liquid water ocean beneath the frozen surface, making Titan one of the few worlds in our solar system that could potentially contain habitable environments. The upcoming NASA Dragonfly mission, set to launch in 2027, aims to explore Titan’s surface and search for signs of life.

Investigating Shear Deformation on Titan

Burkhard and her co-author focused their investigation on the Selk crater area, the designated initial landing site for the Dragonfly mission. They calculated the stress exerted on Titan’s surface due to tidal forces as the moon orbits Saturn and explored the potential for shear deformations and strike-slip faulting. However, their findings suggest that the Selk crater area is unlikely to host such geological features. While certain areas on Titan may undergo deformation due to tidal stresses, the conditions required for shear failure seem improbable. This insight will inform the Dragonfly mission’s landing site selection, ensuring it avoids strike-slip ditches.

Ganymede’s Checkered Geologic History

Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon, also exhibits strike-slip faults on its surface. Burkhard and her team investigated the Nippur/Philus Sulci region of Ganymede, examining high-resolution data and conducting a tidal stress investigation of the moon’s past. They discovered that the varying degrees of tectonic deformation in this area indicate three distinct eras of geologic activity: ancient, intermediate, and youngest. The researchers also found evidence suggesting that Ganymede’s orbit was more elliptical in the past, causing higher tidal stresses and resulting in strike-slip faulting. However, the origin of other shear features in younger geologic units remains enigmatic, suggesting alternative processes at play.

The Synergy of Geologic Investigations and Space Missions

The recent studies on Titan and Ganymede, combined with upcoming space exploration missions, create a positive feedback loop of knowledge. Geologic investigations like these provide crucial insights that inform and guide mission activities. The Dragonfly mission, Europa Clipper, and ESA’s JUICE mission will further refine our understanding of these icy moons, helping to identify the most intriguing locations for exploration and potentially gaining access to the interior oceans.


The studies led by the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa shed light on the mechanisms behind strike-slip faults on Titan and Ganymede, providing valuable insights into the potential for habitable environments and the geologic history of these icy moons. As scientists continue to explore the mysteries of our solar system, the synergy between geologic investigations and space missions will undoubtedly unlock more secrets and deepen our understanding of these enigmatic worlds.