Saturn’s Moon Titan is Home to ‘Ghost Lakes’ and Subterranean Caves

A detailed study of the overflights of the Cassini spacecraft by Saturn’s moon Titan has revealed fascinating new clues about one of the most interesting moons in our solar system.

Titan is the only moon in our solar system that has a dense atmosphere, which may support an Earth-like cycle of ethane and methane clouds, rain, and liquid that flows into lakes and seas.

After examining data from NASA’s Cassini mission, a team led by Shannon MacKenzie of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, noticed three instances where what appeared to be shallow lakes on the moon’s surface disappeared between winter and summer — a period lasting around seven years — in Titan’s northern regions.

This animation blinks between data from Cassini’s RADAR (NLDSAR) and its Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS). The three features (labeled A, B, C) that appear as lakes in radar look like land in VIMS observations made seven years later. Liquid from the lakes may have evaporated and seeped into the surface; scientists suspect seasonal changes — from winter to summer — also played a role in the lakes’ disappearance.  Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/University of Arizona/University of Idaho/JPL-Caltech/ASI/IPGP/CNRS
This animation blinks between data from Cassini’s RADAR (NLDSAR) and its Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS). The three features (labeled A, B, C) that appear as lakes in radar look like land in VIMS observations made seven years later. Liquid from the lakes may have evaporated and seeped into the surface; scientists suspect seasonal changes — from winter to summer — also played a role in the lakes’ disappearance. Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory/University of Arizona/University of Idaho/JPL-Caltech/ASI/IPGP/CNRS

“It’s the first time we’ve actually seen a lake on Titan’s surface disappear completely,” revealed MacKenzie.

“This tells us that if evaporation is happening as slowly as models predict, then the surface must also be porous enough in these areas for the liquid to drain into it for the lakes to disappear.”

True-color image of layers of haze in Titan's atmosphere. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
True-color image of layers of haze in Titan’s atmosphere. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

That’s why understanding the behavior of Titan’s lakes and the timescales taking place is of essence local weather, climate and sediment processing.

Titan, which is the only known planetary body in our solar system other than our planet to have stable liquid on its surface is also 50% larger than our planet’s moon and 80% more massive. Titan is also the second-largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Titan is larger than the planet Mercury, but only 40% as massive.

“The new observations offer new insight into the behavior of liquids on Titan’s surface, and it also tells us how long it takes for some of these processes to occur,” MacKenzie added.

Polar clouds, made of methane, on Titan (left) compared with polar clouds on Earth (right), which are made of water or water ice. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Polar clouds, made of methane, on Titan (left) compared with polar clouds on Earth (right), which are made of water or water ice. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The results of the new study were published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Via
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
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