Tag Archives: Titan

Changing seasons on Titan

Since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, Cassini has seen the seasons on Titan shift through half a Saturn year.

As Titan approaches its northern summer solstice, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed dramatic seasonal changes in the atmospheric temperature and composition of Saturn’s largest moon. Winter is taking a grip on the southern hemisphere and a strong vortex, enriched in trace gases, has developed in the upper atmosphere over the south pole. These observations show a polar reversal in Titan’s atmosphere since Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, when similar features were seen in the northern hemisphere.

Sadly, there will not be any spacecraft at Saturn during the second half of this Saturn year. After Cassini ends its mission in 2017 it will likely be many decades before another spacecraft arrives, since at this moment none has even been proposed.

Rivers of liquid carved deep gorges on Titan

Cassini radar data of Via Flumina

Cool image time! New data from Cassini has now both confirmed that there is liquid inside some of the river-like formations on Titan, and that this liquid has carved these formations into very deep gorges.

The Cassini observations reveal that the channels — in particular, a network of them named Vid Flumina — are narrow canyons, generally less than half a mile (a bit less than a kilometer) wide, with slopes steeper than 40 degrees. The canyons also are quite deep — those measured are 790 to 1,870 feet (240 to 570 meters) from top to bottom.

The branching channels appear dark in radar images, much like Titan’s methane-rich seas. This suggested to scientists that the channels might also be filled with liquid, but a direct detection had not been made until now. Previously it wasn’t clear if the dark material was liquid or merely saturated sediment — which at Titan’s frigid temperatures would be made of ice, not rock.

The diagram on the above right is from the paper itself, and shows some of the radar data obtained by Cassini. It also illustrates the deep and narrow nature of Via Flumina. This is almost the equivalent of what we call slot canyons on Earth, formed by periodic flash floods that cut their way down as the surface is slowly uplifted by other processes.

The new radar data showed that the surface at the base of the gorge was smooth and flat, just as you’d find if that base was filled with liquid.The altimeter data showed that gorge’s elevation matched that of Titan’s lakes at its insurgence, but as you traveled upstream the elevation rose, just as it does on any river on Earth. Moreover, this data was reasonably trustworthy as they had already used Cassini to successfully do exactly the same thing — identify a known river — when it flew past Earth on its way to Saturn.

Be prepared for one piece of misinformation when the press reports on this story, almost certainly caused by the American Geological Union’s press release about this paper. That press release incorrectly claims that the paper confirmed that these are methane rivers. It does no such thing. It only shows that the gorges have a liquid in them, and that the liquid almost certainly formed the gorges. Though methane is a very likely candidate for this liquid based on what we know of Titan, the actual make-up of the river remains uncertain.

I therefore predict our incompetent modern mainstream press will only read this press release and not the paper itself, and thus they will tout these incorrectly as methane rivers.

Below is a cropped Cassini radar image of Via Flumina, showing its river-like appearance. Scientists always suspected these were formed by flowing liquid. Now they have strong evidence from within the gorge to justify that suspicion.

Via Flumina on Titan

Titan over Saturn’s rings

Titan over Saturn's rings

Cool image time! The picture on the right, taken on January 26, 2016 by Cassini and reduced and cropped to show here, captures Titan above Saturn’s rings, which are themselves partly obscured by the shadow of Saturn (unseen on the right) that falls across them.

Make sure you go to look at the full image. This is the kind of vista that artists in the 1950s imagined we’d see once we began to explore the solar system.

The methane seas of Titan

Scientists have used the data that Cassini has gathered in more than a hundred fly-bys of Titan to assemble a rough outline of the geology and make-up of Titan’s liquid lakes.

There are three large seas, all close to the north pole, surrounded by dozens of smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one lake has been found in the southern hemisphere. The exact make-up of these liquid reservoirs remained elusive until recently. A new study using scans from Cassini’s radar during flybys of Titan between 2007 and 2015 confirms that one of the largest seas on the moon, Ligeia Mare, is mostly liquid methane.

“We expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart,” explains Alice Le Gall from the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales and Université Versailles Saint-Quentin, France, and lead author of the new study. “Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane.”

The data is also giving them the first understanding of the weather and geology that forms the lakes, including why methane instead of ethane dominates.

Titan’s changing shorelines

Shoreline changes on Titan

Cool image time! Using radar images taken during the past decade by Cassini scientists have discovered changes taking place along the shorelines of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas.

Analysis by Cassini scientists indicates that the bright features, informally known as the “magic island,” are a phenomenon that changes over time. They conclude that the brightening is due to either waves, solids at or beneath the surface or bubbles, with waves thought to be the most likely explanation. They think tides, sea level and seafloor changes are unlikely to be responsible for the brightening.

The images in the column at left show the same region of Ligeia Mare as seen by Cassini’s radar during flybys in (from top to bottom) 2007, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

These shoreline changes are not the only ones spotted by Cassini. However, because these are radar images, not visual, there are many uncertainties about what causes the changes, which is why they list several possibilities. For example, with radar, a simple roughness on the surface (such as waves) could cause a brightening.

New global maps of Titan

Titan's North Pole

The Cassini science team has released new maps of Titan, including new maps of both poles, assembled from images taken during the 100 flybys that the spacecraft has made of the moon since it arrived in orbit around Saturn.

The scale is rough, just less than a mile at best, and there is no topographic information because the thick atmosphere allows for no strong sunlight or shadows. The images show differences in surface brightness, which does tell us where Titan’s dark methane lakes are.

This is likely the best we will get of Titan for decades, until another spacecraft is sent there.

The seas of Titan

Thar’s black gold up thar! Data from Cassini has confirmed the presence of ocean waves on Titan’s seas, while also providing suggesting that they are made mostly of liquid methane, not ethane as had been predicted.

The maximum depth of Kraken Mare appears to be 160 meters, and Ligeia Mare could be as much as 200 meters deep, reported Marco Mastrogiuseppe of Sapienza University of Rome. The fact that the radar signals could bounce off the sea bottom suggests that the seas were more transparent than expected and thus must contain mostly methane, not ethane. Hayes says his best estimate is about 90% methane. Essam Marouf, a planetary scientist at San José State University in California, reported on the first results from a separate radar experiment that sent radar reflections to Earth instead of back to the spacecraft. Those tests provide independent evidence that the seas are dominated by methane, Marouf says, and it implies that the lakes are kept filled by precipitating methane.

As the article also notes, this methane is “55 times Earth’s oil reserves.”

Titan’s atmosphere is unexpectedly unbalanced

The uncertainty of science: New data from the ground-based telescope ALMA suggest that certain organic molecules in Titan’s atmosphere are not evenly distributed through the atmosphere as expected.

At the highest altitudes, the pockets of organic molecules were shifted away from the poles. These off-pole concentrations are unexpected because the fast-moving, east-west winds in Titan’s middle atmosphere should thoroughly mix the molecules formed there. The researchers do not have an obvious explanation for these findings yet.

I would not take these results too seriously, as the data are very sketchy. With better data many of these questions will vanish, replaced by new questions that are better based on reality.

Something keeps coming and going in a sea on Titan

Cassini images taken in 2007, 2013, and 2014 of one of Titan’s largest hydrocarbon seas find that a mysterious feature there keeps appearing and disappearing.

The mysterious feature, which appears bright in radar images against the dark background of the liquid sea, was first spotted during Cassini’s July 2013 Titan flyby. Previous observations showed no sign of bright features in that part of Ligeia Mare. Scientists were perplexed to find the feature had vanished when they looked again, over several months, with low-resolution radar and Cassini’s infrared imager. This led some team members to suggest it might have been a transient feature. But during Cassini’s flyby on August 21, 2014, the feature was again visible, and its appearance had changed during the 11 months since it was last seen.

Scientists on the radar team are confident that the feature is not an artifact, or flaw, in their data, which would have been one of the simplest explanations. They also do not see evidence that its appearance results from evaporation in the sea, as the overall shoreline of Ligeia Mare has not changed noticeably. The team has suggested the feature could be surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids suspended just below the surface, or perhaps something more exotic.

That the seasons are slowly changing on Titan is probably contributing to the transient nature of this feature.

The weather is finally changing on Titan

New Cassini images of Titan have spotted the appearance of clouds above the planet’s northern seas, suggesting the overdue onset of the summer storms that climate models have predicted.

For several years after Cassini’s 2004 arrival in the Saturn system, scientists frequently observed cloud activity near Titan’s south pole, which was experiencing late summer at the time. Clouds continued to be observed as spring came to Titan’s northern hemisphere. But since a huge storm swept across the icy moon’s low latitudes in late 2010, only a few small clouds have been observed anywhere on the icy moon. The lack of cloud activity has surprised researchers, as computer simulations of Titan’s atmospheric circulation predicted that clouds would increase in the north as summer approached, bringing increasingly warm temperatures to the atmosphere there.

“We’re eager to find out if the clouds’ appearance signals the beginning of summer weather patterns, or if it is an isolated occurrence,” said Elizabeth Turtle, a Cassini imaging team associate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland. “Also, how are the clouds related to the seas? Did Cassini just happen catch them over the seas, or do they form there preferentially?”

Any conclusions drawn at this time about the seasonal weather patterns of Titan must be considered highly uncertain, since we only have been observing the planet for a period that only covers one very short portion of its very long 30 year-long year.

Radar images of Titan taken in 2013 by Cassini show a twelve-mile patch appear in one of the moon’s methane lakes, then disappear.

The mysteries of science: Radar images of Titan taken in 2013 by Cassini show a twelve-mile patch appear in one of the moon’s methane lakes, then disappear.

They really don’t know what this patch is.

Prior to the July 2013 observation, that region of Ligeia Mare had been completely devoid of features, including waves. Titan’s seasons change on a longer time scale than Earth’s. The moon’s northern hemisphere is transitioning from spring to summer. The astronomers think the strange feature may result from changing seasons.

In light of the changes, Hofgartner and the other authors speculate on four reasons for this phenomenon:

  • Northern hemisphere winds may be kicking up and forming waves on Ligeia Mare. The radar imaging system might see the waves as a kind of “ghost” island.
  • Gases may push out from the sea floor of Ligeia Mare, rising to the surface as bubbles.
  • Sunken solids formed by a wintry freeze could become buoyant with the onset of warmer temperatures during the late Titan spring.
  • Ligeia Mare has suspended solids, which are neither sunken nor floating, but act like silt in a terrestrial delta.

“Likely, several different processes – such as wind, rain and tides – might affect the methane and ethane lakes on Titan,” [says Hofgarnter]

It is very important to remember that Titan is a very alien planet to the Earth. While some features, its methane lakes, have a superficial resemblance to lakes on Earth, the materials and environment are completely different. For example, on Earth the only thing that generally floats on water is ice, so that when winter arrives the surface freezes while the water below remains liquid. On Titan, if the methane freezes the ice will sink.

Scientists have released the first topo map of Titan.

Scientists have released the first topo map of Titan.

Whereas Earth’s tallest mountain towers nearly 9 kilometers above sea level, Titan’s topographic variations are mild: Its highest point is just half a kilometer above the mean and its lowest just 1.7 kilometers below.

Overall the detail here is not very great. None of the instruments on Cassini can see anything smaller than a half kilometer, about 1,500 feet, so the data doesn’t really show us the rough details. Moreover, the best data is spotty, as it has been accumulated by about a hundred Cassini fly-bys, rather than systematically by an orbiting spacecraft.

Scientists now think it is possible for there to be floating methane ice on the lakes of Titan.

Scientists now think it is possible for there to be floating methane ice on the lakes of Titan.

Up to this point, Cassini scientists assumed that Titan lakes would not have floating ice, because solid methane is denser than liquid methane and would sink. But the new model considers the interaction between the lakes and the atmosphere, resulting in different mixtures of compositions, pockets of nitrogen gas, and changes in temperature. The result, scientists found, is that winter ice will float in Titan’s methane-and-ethane-rich lakes and seas if the temperature is below the freezing point of methane — minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit (90.4 kelvins). The scientists realized all the varieties of ice they considered would float if they were composed of at least 5 percent “air,” which is an average composition for young sea ice on Earth. (“Air” on Titan has significantly more nitrogen than Earth air and almost no oxygen.)

New data suggests that the icy crust of Titan is twice as thick as previously estimated.

New data suggests that the icy crust of Titan is twice as thick as previously estimated.

“The picture of Titan that we get has an icy, rocky core with a radius of a little over 2,000 kilometers, an ocean somewhere in the range of 225 to 300 kilometers thick and an ice layer that is 200 kilometers thick,” [said Howard Zebker of Stanford University]. Previous models of Titan’s structure estimated the icy crust to be approximately 100 kilometers thick.

This means that the methane lakes and rivers of Titan are flowing across a bedrock of ice, which at the cold temperatures there would be as solid as rock is here on Earth.

Scientists are proposing that Europe send a probe to Titan and sail it on that planet’s methane lakes.

Scientists are proposing that Europe send a probe to Titan and sail it on that planet’s methane lakes.

This concept had been proposed to NASA last year but it was rejected when the Obama administration shut down the planetary program.

Data of the tidal fluxes on Titan by the Cassini spacecraft now suggest that there is a liquid ocean below Titan’s icy crust.

Data of the tidal fluxes on Titan by the Cassini spacecraft now suggest that there is a liquid ocean below Titan’s icy crust.

The team’s analyses suggest that the surface of the moon can rise and fall by up to 10 metres during each orbit, says Iess. That degree of warpage suggests that Titan’s interior is relatively deformable, the team reports today in Science1. Several models of the moon’s internal structure suggest such flexibility — including a model in which the moon is solid but soft and squishy throughout. But the researchers contend that the most likely model of Titan is one in which an icy shell dozens of kilometres thick floats atop a global ocean. The team’s findings, together with the results of previous studies, hint that Titan’s ocean may lie no more than 100 km below the moon’s surface.

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