Titan's Enigmatic Infrared-Bright Spot Is Surface Make-Up

October 6, 2005
ombined VIMS and ISS images of Titan's mysterious bright red spot gives researchers more information about the feature than eith

A 300-mile-wide patch that outshines everything else on Titan at long infrared wavelengths appears not to be a mountain, a cloud or a geologically active hot spot, University of Arizona scientists and Cassini team members say.

Image: Combined VIMS and ISS images of Titan's mysterious bright red spot gives researchers more information about the feature than either single view. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/Space Science Institute)

"We must be looking at a difference in surface composition," said Jason W. Barnes, a postdoctoral researcher at UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab. "That's exciting because this is the first evidence that says not all of the bright areas on Titan are the same. Now we have to figure out what those differences are, what might have caused them."

When NASA's Cassini spacecraft flew by Titan on March 31 and again on April 16, its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer saw a feature that was spectacularly bright at 5-micron wavelengths just southeast of the continent-sized region called Xanadu.

The bright spot occurs where Cassini's visible-wavelength imaging cameras photographed a bright arc-shaped feature approximately the same size in December 2004 and February 2005.

Cassini's radar instrument, operating in the "passive" mode that is sensitive to microwaves emitted from a planetary surface, saw no temperature difference between the bright spot and surrounding region. That rules out the possibility that the 5-micron bright spot is a hot spot, such as a geologically active ice volcano, Barnes said.

Cassini microwave radiometry also failed to detect a temperature drop that would show up if some two-mile high mountain rose from Titan's surface, he said.

And if the 5-micron bright spot is a cloud, it's a cloud that hasn't moved or changed shape for three years, according to ground-based observations made at the Keck Telescope and with Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer during five different flybys. "If this is a cloud," Barnes said, "it would have to be a persistent ground fog, like San Francisco on steroids, always foggy, all the time."

"The bright spot must be a patch of surface with a composition different from anything we've seen yet. Titan's surface is primarily composed of ice. It could be that something is contaminating the ice here, but what this might be is not clear," Barnes said.

"There's a lot left to explore about Titan. It's a very complex, exciting place. It's not obvious how it works. It's going to be a lot of fun over the next couple of years figuring out how Titan works," he said.

Barnes and 34 other scientists report the research in the Oct. 7 issue of Science. Authors include UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory scientists and Cassini team members Robert H. Brown, head of Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team; Elizabeth P. Turtle and Alfred S. McEwen of the Cassini imaging team; Ralph D. Lorenz of the Cassini radar team; Caitlin Griffith of the Cassini visual and infrared mapping team; and Jason Perry and Stephanie Fussner, who work with McEwen and Turtle on Cassini imaging.

Source: University of Arizona

Explore further: Saturn's moon Rhea

Related Stories

Saturn's moon Rhea

October 26, 2015

The Cronian system (i.e. Saturn and its system of rings and moons) is breathtaking to behold and intriguing to study. Besides its vast and beautiful ring system, it also has the second-most satellites of any planet in the ...

Saturn's moon Titan

October 5, 2015

In ancient Greek lore, the Titans were giant deities of incredible strength who ruled during the legendary Golden Age and gave birth to the Olympian gods we all know and love. Saturn's largest moon, known as Titan, is therefore ...

The gas (and ice) giant Neptune

September 14, 2015

Neptune is the eight planet from our Sun, one of the four gas giants, and one of the four outer planets in our Solar System. Since the "demotion" of Pluto by the IAU to the status of a dwarf planet – and/or Plutoid and ...

New Cassini Images Show "Northern Lights" Of Saturn

August 4, 2005

New images of Saturn obtained by a University of Colorado at Boulder-led team on June 21 using an instrument on the Cassini spacecraft show auroral emissions at its poles similar to Earth's Northern Lights.

Recommended for you

NASA's space-station resupply missions to relaunch

November 29, 2015

NASA's commercial space program returns to flight this week as one of its private cargo haulers, Orbital ATK, is to launch its first supply shipment to the International Space Station in more than 13 months.

CERN collides heavy nuclei at new record high energy

November 25, 2015

The world's most powerful accelerator, the 27 km long Large Hadron Collider (LHC) operating at CERN in Geneva established collisions between lead nuclei, this morning, at the highest energies ever. The LHC has been colliding ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.