The effect of Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities on the thickness of undifferentiated crust on Kuiper Belt objects like Charon
In this thesis I model the thermal and structural evolution of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) and explore their ability to retain undifferentiated crusts of rock and ice over geologic timescales. Previous calculations by Desch et al. (2009) predicted that initially homogenous KBOs comparable in size to Charon (R ~ 600 km) have surfaces too cold to permit the separation of rock and ice, and should always retain thick (~ 85 km) crusts, despite the partial differentiation of rock and ice inside the body. The retention of a thermally insulating, undifferentiated crust is favorable to the maintenance of subsurface liquid and potentially cryovolcanism on the KBO surface. A potential objection to these models is that the dense crust of rock and ice overlying an ice mantle represents a gravitationally unstable configuration that should overturn by Rayleigh-Taylor (RT) instabilities. I have calculated the growth rate of RT instabilities at the ice-crust interface, including the effect of rock on the viscosity. I have identified a critical ice viscosity for the instability to grow significantly over the age of the solar system. I have calculated the viscosity as a function of temperature for conditions relevant to marginal instability. I find that RT instabilities on a Charon-sized KBO require temperatures T > 143 K. Including this effect in thermal evolution models of KBOs, I find that the undifferentiated crust on KBOs is thinner than previously calculated, only ~ 50 km. While thinner, this crustal thickness is still significant, representing ~ 25% of the KBO mass, and helps to maintain subsurface liquid throughout most of the KBO's history.