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: Why roundworms are ideal for space studies

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

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

New project aims to establish a human colony on Mars

1 hour ago

MarsPolar, a newly started international venture is setting its sights on the Red Planet. The project consisting of specialists from Russia, United Arab Emirates, Poland, U.S. and Ukraine has come up with a bol ...

Ceres bright spots sharpen but questions remain

22 hours ago

The latest views of Ceres' enigmatic white spots are sharper and clearer, but it's obvious that Dawn will have to descend much lower before we'll see crucial details hidden in this overexposed splatter of ...

Rosetta's view of a comet's "great divide"

22 hours ago

The latest image to be revealed of comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comes from October 27, 2014, before the Philae lander even departed for its surface. Above we get a view of a dramatically-shadowed cliff ...

How long will our spacecraft survive?

22 hours ago

There are many hazards out there, eager to disrupt and dismantle the mighty machines we send out into space. How long can they survive to perform their important missions?

Why roundworms are ideal for space studies

22 hours ago

Humans have long been fascinated by the cosmos. Ancient cave paintings show that we've been thinking about space for much of the history of our species. The popularity of recent sci-fi movies suggest that ...

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.