Titan features steep, liquid-filled canyons

October 31, 2016 by Blaine Friedlander
Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has features that resemble Earth's geology, with deep, steep-sided canyons. Credit: Cassini/NASA/JPL

Although Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is surrounded by a thick, hazy atmosphere, Cornell astronomers have revealed that the moon's terrain features deep, steep-sided canyons filled with liquid hydrocarbons.

While NASA's Cassini mission previously had imaged the channels flowing into the large northern sea Ligeia Mare, the new observations used the Cassini radar's altimetry mode to measure their topography. The surprising results showed canyons hundreds of feet deep – featuring specular reflections from the channel floors, the first direct evidence that they are currently filled with liquid.

"Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane. And yet it's remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds," said Alex Hayes, assistant professor of astronomy.

"The canyons found in Titan's north are even more surprising, as we have no idea how they formed. Their narrow width and depth imply rapid erosion, as sea levels rise and fall in the nearby sea. This brings up a host of questions, such as where did all the eroded material go?" Hayes said.

The Cassini observations disclosed these channels – narrow canyons in a river network called Vid Flumina – about a half-mile wide, with canyons 800 to 1,900 feet deep and steep slopes.

Valerio Poggiali of Sapienza University of Rome – who was a visiting student at Cornell when part of this work was completed and who will soon join Cornell's astronomy department as a research associate – led the project.

"It's likely that a combination of … forces contributed to the formation of the deep canyons, but at present it's not clear," Poggiali told the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the group managing Cassini. "What is clear is that any description of Titan's geological evolution needs to be able to explain how the canyons got there."

In addition to Hayes, Cornell astronomers on the study, "Liquid-filled Canyons on Titan," appearing in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, August 2016, included researcher Marco Mastrogiuseppe; Sam Birch, a doctoral student in the field of astronomy; and Jason Hofgartner, Ph.D. '16, now at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Explore further: Cassini finds flooded canyons on Titan

More information: V. Poggiali et al. Liquid-filled canyons on Titan, Geophysical Research Letters (2016). DOI: 10.1002/2016GL069679

Related Stories

Cassini finds flooded canyons on Titan

August 10, 2016

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found deep, steep-sided canyons on Saturn's moon Titan that are flooded with liquid hydrocarbons. The finding represents the first direct evidence of the presence of liquid-filled channels on ...

Titan's flooded canyons

September 20, 2016

The aptly named Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is remarkably Earth-like. Its diameter is only about 40% that of our planet, but Titan's nitrogen-rich, dense atmosphere and the geological activity at the moon's surface make ...

Cassini nears 100th Titan flyby with a look back

March 6, 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 what might lie beneath ...

Recommended for you

Solar minimum surprisingly constant

November 17, 2017

Using more than a half-century of observations, Japanese astronomers have discovered that the microwaves coming from the sun at the minimums of the past five solar cycles have been the same each time, despite large differences ...

Lava or not, exoplanet 55 Cancri e likely to have atmosphere

November 16, 2017

Twice as big as Earth, the super-Earth 55 Cancri e was thought to have lava flows on its surface. The planet is so close to its star, the same side of the planet always faces the star, such that the planet has permanent day ...

0 comments

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.