Titan's Volcanoes Give Cassini Chilly Reception

Dec 16, 2008
Infrared Map of Titan’s Active Regions. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

(PhysOrg.com) -- Data collected during several recent flybys of Titan by NASA's Cassini spacecraft have put another arrow in the quiver of scientists who think the Saturnian moon contains active cryovolcanoes spewing a super-chilled liquid into its atmosphere. The information was released today during a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Calif.

"Cryovolcanoes are some of the most intriguing features in the solar system," said Rosaly Lopes, a Cassini radar team investigation scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "To put them in perspective -- if Mount Vesuvius had been a cryovolcano, its lava would have frozen the residents of Pompeii."

The Cassini Radar Mapper imaged Titan on Feb. 22, 2008 (as shown on the left) and April 30, 2006 (as shown on the right). Credit: NASA/JPL

Rather than erupting molten rock, it is theorized that the cryovolcanoes of Titan would erupt volatiles such as water, ammonia and methane. Scientists have suspected cryovolcanoes might inhabit Titan, and the Cassini mission has collected data on several previous passes of the moon that suggest their existence. Imagery of the moon has included a suspect haze hovering over flow-like surface formations. Scientists point to these as signs of cryovolcanism there.

"Cassini data have raised the possibility that Titan's surface is active," said Jonathan Lunine, a Cassini interdisciplinary scientist from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, University of Arizona, Tucson. "This is based on evidence that changes have occurred on the surface of Titan, between flybys of Cassini, in regions where radar images suggest a kind of volcanism has taken place."

What led some Cassini scientists to believe that things are happening now were changes in brightness and reflectance detected at two separate and distinct regions of Titan. Reflectance is the ratio of light that radiates onto a surface to the amount reflected back. These changes were documented by Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer data collected on Titan flybys from July 2004 to March 2006. In one of the two regions, the reflectance of the surface surged upward and remained higher than expected. In the other region, the reflectance shot up but then trended downward. There is also evidence that ammonia frost is present at one of the two changing sites. The ammonia was evident only at times when the region was inferred to be active.

"Ammonia is widely believed to be present only beneath the surface of Titan," said Robert M. Nelson of JPL, a scientist for Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer team. "The fact that we found it appearing at times when the surface brightened strongly suggests that material was being transported from Titan's interior to its surface."

Some Cassini scientists indicate that such volcanism could release methane from Titan's interior, which explains Titan's seemingly continuous supply of fresh methane. Without replenishment, scientists say, Titan's original atmospheric methane should have been exhausted long ago.

But other scientists familiar with the spectrometer data argue that the ammonia identification is not certain, and that the purported brightness changes might not be associated with changes on Titan's surface. Instead they might result from the transient appearances of ground "fogs" of ethane droplets very near Titan's surface, driven by atmospheric rather than geophysical processes. Nelson has considered the ground fog option, stating, "There remains the possibility that the effect is caused by a local fog, but if so, we would expect it to change in size over time due to wind activity, which is not what we see."

The chilly volcanoes of Titan are not a fait accompli. An alternative hypothesis to an active Titan suggests the Saturnian moon could be taking its landform evolution cues from a moon of Jupiter.

"Like Callisto, Titan may have formed as a relatively cold body, and may have never undergone enough tidal heating for volcanism to occur," said Jeffrey Moore, a planetary geologist at the NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "The flow-like features we see on the surface may just be icy debris that has been lubricated by methane rain and transported downslope into sinuous piles like mudflows."

More revelations may be forthcoming. Scientists are still analyzing the data from Cassini's most recent flyby on Dec. 5. Cassini's next Titan flyby is scheduled in 11 days, when the spacecraft will come within 970 kilometers (603 miles) of its cloud-shrouded surface.

Provided by NASA, JPL

Explore further: NASA craft set to beam home close-ups of Pluto

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Huygens mission: Ten years at Titan

Jan 14, 2015

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the pioneering Huygens mission to Saturn's moon Titan, the first successful landing on an outer Solar System world.

Saturn's moons: What a difference a decade makes

Dec 11, 2014

Almost immediately after NASA's twin Voyager spacecraft made their brief visits to Saturn in the early 1980s, scientists were hungry for more. The Voyagers had offered them only a brief glimpse of a family ...

Study offers explanation for Titan dune puzzle

Dec 08, 2014

Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is a peculiar place. Unlike any other moon, it has a dense atmosphere. It has rivers and lakes made up of components of natural gas, such as ethane and methane. It also has windswept ...

Image: Icy rocks around Saturn

Nov 03, 2014

(Phys.org) —Earth is the only planet in our Solar System to have a single solitary moon. While others, such as Mercury and Venus, have none, the gas giants have accumulated crowds of orbiting bodies—Saturn, ...

Recommended for you

NASA craft set to beam home close-ups of Pluto

14 hours ago

Nine years after leaving Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft is at last drawing close to Pluto and on Sunday was expected to start shooting photographs of the dwarf planet.

Elon Musk's SpaceX drops lawsuit against Air Force

Jan 25, 2015

A spacecraft company run by billionaire Elon Musk has dropped a lawsuit alleging the U.S. Air Force improperly awarded a contract to launch military satellites to a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed ...

NASA spacecraft almost to Pluto: Smile for the camera!

Jan 23, 2015

It's showtime for Pluto. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has traveled 3 billion miles and is nearing the end of its nine-year journey to Pluto. Sunday, it begins photographing the mysterious, unexplored, icy ...

Gullies on Vesta suggest past water-mobilized flows

Jan 23, 2015

(Phys.org)—Protoplanet Vesta, visited by NASA's Dawn spacecraft from 2011 to 2013, was once thought to be completely dry, incapable of retaining water because of the low temperatures and pressures at its ...

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.