Cassini may have spotted waves in Titan's seas

Mar 19, 2014 by Jason Major, Universe Today
Cassini VIMS image showing specular reflections in one of Titan’s many lakes during the T85 flyby on July 24, 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason W. Barnes et al.

It's no surprise that Titan's north polar region is covered with vast lakes and seas of liquid methane—these have been imaged many times by Cassini during its ten years in orbit around Saturn. What is surprising though is just how incredibly smooth the surfaces of these lakes have been found to be.

One would think that such large expanses of surface liquid—some of Titan's seas are as big the Great Lakes—would exhibit at least a little surface action on a world with an atmosphere as dense as Titan's. But repeated radar imaging has shown their surfaces to be "as smooth as the paint on a car." Over the past several years scientists have puzzled over this anomaly but now they may have truly seen the light—that is, reflected light from what could actually be waves on Titan!

Using data acquired during flybys of Titan in 2012 and 2013, planetary scientist Jason Barnes from the University of Idaho and a team of researchers from several other institutions including JPL, Cornell, and MIT, have identified what might be waves in the surface of Punga Mare, one of Titan's biggest lakes.

For a sense of scale, Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, could fit lengthwise across Titan's 380-km (236-mile) -wide Punga Mare.

Variations in specular highlights in four pixels observed in the surface of Punga Mare by Cassini's VIMS (Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) have been interpreted by the team as being the result of waves—or, perhaps more accurately, ripples, seeing as that they are estimated to be a mere 2 centimeters in height.

Still, based on what's been observed thus far on Titan, that's downright choppy.

Map of Titan’s northern “Land o’ Lakes” made from Cassini high-resolution radar imaging. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

If the Cassini observations interpreted by Barnes et al. are indicative of waves in Punga Mare, they could also explain previous specular variations seen in other bodies of liquid, like the smaller Kivu Lacus.

Then again, wave action isn't the only possible answer. Similar varied specular highlights could also be caused by a wet surface—like a methane mud flat. Further observations will be needed to rule out other possibilities and obtain a more accurate "surf forecast" for Titan.

Explore further: Cassini sheds light on Titan's second largest lake, Ligeia Mare

More information: The findings were presented by Jason Barnes at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston on March 17, 2014. Read the team's abstract here: www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2014/pdf/1947.pdf

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Cassini nears 100th Titan flyby with a look back

Mar 06, 2014

(Phys.org) —Ten years ago, we knew Titan as a fuzzy orange ball about the size of Mercury. We knew it had a nitrogen atmosphere—the only known world with a thick nitrogen atmosphere besides Earth. But ...

Mystery of the missing waves on Titan

Jul 23, 2013

One of the most shocking discoveries of the past 10 years is how much the landscape of Saturn's moon Titan resembles Earth. Like our own blue planet, the surface of Titan is dotted with lakes and seas; it ...

Titan's methane: Going, going, soon to be gone?

Apr 16, 2013

(Phys.org) —By tracking a part of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan over several years, NASA's Cassini mission has found a remarkable longevity to the hydrocarbon lakes on the moon's surface.

Cassini gets new views of Titan's land of lakes

Oct 24, 2013

(Phys.org) —With the sun now shining down over the north pole of Saturn's moon Titan, a little luck with the weather, and trajectories that put the spacecraft into optimal viewing positions, NASA's Cassini ...

Recommended for you

SDO captures images of two mid-level flares

12 hours ago

The sun emitted a mid-level flare on Dec. 18, 2014, at 4:58 p.m. EST. NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured an image of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts ...

Why is Venus so horrible?

19 hours ago

Venus sucks. Seriously, it's the worst. The global temperature is as hot as an oven, the atmospheric pressure is 90 times Earth, and it rains sulfuric acid. Every part of the surface of Venus would kill you ...

Image: Christmas wrapping the Sentinel-3A antenna

22 hours ago

The moment a team of technicians, gowned like hospital surgeons, wraps the Sentinel-3A radar altimeter in multilayer insulation to protect it from the temperature extremes found in Earth orbit.

Video: Flying over Becquerel

22 hours ago

This latest release from the camera on ESA's Mars Express is a simulated flight over the Becquerel crater, showing large-scale deposits of sedimentary material.

Spinning up a dust devil on Mars

23 hours ago

Spinning up a dust devil in the thin air of Mars requires a stronger updraft than is needed to create a similar vortex on Earth, according to research at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

User comments : 0

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.