Spatial distribution of ice blocks on Enceladus and implications for their origin and emplacement

Hilary R. Martens, Andrew P. Ingersoll, Shawn P. Ewald, Paul Helfenstein, Bernd Giese

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


We have mapped the locations of over 100,000 ice blocks across the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus, thus generating the first quantitative estimates of ice-block number density distribution in relation to major geological features. Ice blocks were manually identified and mapped from twenty of the highest resolution (4-25. m per pixel) Cassini Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) narrow-angle images using ArcGIS software. The 10-100. m-diameter positive-relief features are marginally visible at the resolution of the images, making ice-block identifications difficult but not impossible. Our preliminary results reveal that ice blocks in the southern hemisphere are systematically most concentrated within the geologically active South Polar Terrain (SPT) and exhibit peak concentrations within 20. km of the tiger-stripe fractures as well as close to the south pole. We find that ice blocks are concentrated just as heavily between tiger-stripe fractures as on the directly adjacent margins; although significant local fluctuations in ice-block number density do occur, we observe no clear pattern with respect to the tiger stripes or jet sources. We examine possible roles of several mechanisms for ice-block origin, emplacement, and evolution: impact cratering, ejection from fissures during cryovolcanic eruptions, tectonic disruption of lithospheric ice, mass wasting, seismic disturbance, and vapor condensation around icy fumeroles. We conclude that impact cratering as well as mass wasting, perhaps triggered by seismic events, cannot account for a majority of ice-block features within the inner SPT. The pervasiveness of fracturing at many size scales, the ubiquity of ice blocks in the inner SPT, as well as the occurrence of linear block arrangements that parallel through-cutting crack networks along the flanks of tiger stripes indicate that tectonic deformation is an important source of blocky-ice features in the SPT. Ejection during catastrophic cryovolcanic eruptions and condensation around surface vents, however, cannot be ruled out. Further, sublimation processes likely erode and disaggregate ice blocks from solid exposures of ice, especially near the warm tiger-stripe fractures. The relative paucity of blocks beyond the bounds of the SPT, particularly on stratigraphically old cratered terrains, may be explained in part by mantling of the surface by fine particulate ice grains that accumulate over time.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)162-176
Number of pages15
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Enceladus
  • Geological processes
  • Ices
  • Satellites, surfaces


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