16 December 2014
It’s springtime on Titan, Saturn’s giant and frigid moon, and the action on its hydrocarbon seas seems to be heating up. Near the moon’s north pole, there is growing evidence for waves on three different seas, scientists reported here today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Researchers are also coming up with the first estimates for the volume and composition of the seas. The bodies appear to be made mostly of methane, and not mostly ethane as previously thought. And they are deep: Ligeia Mare, the second biggest sea with an area larger than Lake Superior, could contain 55 times Earth’s oil reserves.
Ligeia Mare, shown here in a false-color image from NASA’s Cassini mission, is the second largest known body of liquid on Saturn’s moon Titan. It is filled with liquid hydrocarbons, such as ethane and methane, and is one of the many seas and lakes that bejewel Titan’s north polar region. Cassini has yet to observe waves on Ligeia Mare and will look again during its next encounter on May 23, 2013. The image is a false-color mosaic of synthetic aperture radar images obtained by the Cassini spacecraft between February 2006 and April 2007. Dark areas (low radar return) are colored black while bright regions (high radar return) are colored yellow to white. In this color scheme, liquids, which are dark to the radar, end up appearing black and the solid surface of Titan, which appears bright to the radar, ends up appearing yellow.
The evidence is coming from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has being exploring the Saturn system since 2004. In 2009, the northern hemisphere of Titan passed its spring equinox, when it begins tilting toward the sun, and climate models predicted that the increased light would kick up winds as the moon approaches summer in 2017.
That appears to be happening. In a handful of flybys of Titan in the past 6 months, Cassini scientists have seen signs of waves on three different seas: Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, and Punga Mare. Some of the evidence is based on radar reflections, which detect roughness at the sea surface. Particularly intriguing has been a feature on Ligeia Mare dubbed the Magic Island because it appeared, disappeared, and reappeared over the past 2 years. Jason Hofgartner, a planetary science graduate student at Cornell University, says that a likely explanation is transient episodes of waves. “It is neither magical nor an island. But the name has stuck,” he says.
This is a segment of a colorized mosaic from NASA’s Cassini mission that shows the most complete view yet of Titan’s northern land of lakes and seas. Saturn’s moon Titan is the only world in our solar system other than Earth that has stable liquid on its surface. The liquid in Titan’s lakes and seas is mostly methane and ethane. Seas and major lakes are labeled in the annotated version. The data were obtained by Cassini’s radar instrument from 2004 to 2013. In this color scheme, liquids appear blue and black depending on the way the radar bounced off the surface. Land areas appear yellow to white. Kraken Mare, Titan’s largest sea, is the body in black and blue that sprawls from just below and to the right of the north pole down to the bottom. Most of the bodies of liquid on Titan occur in the northern hemisphere. In fact nearly all the lakes and seas on Titan fall into a box covering about 600 by 1,100 miles (900 by 1,800 kilometers). Only 3 percent of the liquid at Titan falls outside of this area. Scientists are trying to identify the geologic processes that are creating large depressions capable of holding major seas in this limited area. A prime suspect is regional extension of the crust, which on Earth leads to the formation of faults creating alternating basins and roughly parallel mountain ranges. This process has shaped the Basin and Range province of the western United States, and during the period of cooler climate 13,000 years ago much of the present state of Nevada was flooded with Lake Lahontan, which (though smaller) bears a strong resemblance to the region of closely packed seas on Titan.
This is a segment of a colorized mosaic from NASA’s Cassini mission that shows the most complete view yet of Titan’s northern land of lakes and seas. Saturn’s moon Titan is the only world in our solar system other than Earth that has stable liquid on its surface. The liquid in Titan’s lakes and seas is mostly methane and ethane. The data were obtained by Cassini’s radar instrument from 2004 to 2013. In this color scheme, liquids appear blue and black depending on the way the radar bounced off the surface. Land areas appear yellow to white. Punga Mare is just below the north pole.
Most of the bodies of liquid on Titan occur in the northern hemisphere. In fact nearly all the lakes and seas on Titan fall into a box covering about 600 by 1,100 miles (900 by 1,800 kilometers). Only 3 percent of the liquid at Titan falls outside of this area.
Scientists involved in the discoveries have been cautious, saying that the features could also be floating debris or bubbles. At Kraken Mare, however, Cassini researchers detected a wavelike feature with both the spacecraft’s radar and a mapping spectrometer. That double detection gives Alexander Hayes, a planetary scientist at Cornell, extra confidence. “It’s most likely waves,” Hayes says. He calculates that the waves are moving at about 0.7 meters per second and at heights of about 1.5 centimeters. “They’re not huge,” he says. Right now, Hayes says, the waves seem to be appearing only in scattered patches where islands or canyons could be funneling winds—a phenomenon that sailors call cat’s paws. In January, Cassini will make another flyby of Titan that will allow the spectrometer a chance to confirm a radar feature detected in Punga Mare.
NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan, who has spent much of her career studying Titan, calls the results a “vindication” for those who predicted seasonal change. “To me, it’s exciting,” she says. “It says that Titan is a dynamic place.” She says that Cassini scientists can now look for evidence that the waves, now or in the past, have eroded into the jagged, frozen shorelines and created long, straight beaches—features that have been mostly lacking in Cassini data.
Other scientists at the meeting reported on using Cassini’s radar to assess the size and contents of the seas. The maximum depth of Kraken Mare appears to be 160 meters, and Ligeia Mare could be as much as 200 meters deep, reported Marco Mastrogiuseppe of Sapienza University of Rome. The fact that the radar signals could bounce off the sea bottom suggests that the seas were more transparent than expected and thus must contain mostly methane, not ethane. Hayes says his best estimate is about 90% methane. Essam Marouf, a planetary scientist at San José State University in California, reported on the first results from a separate radar experiment that sent radar reflections to Earth instead of back to the spacecraft. Those tests provide independent evidence that the seas are dominated by methane, Marouf says, and it implies that the lakes are kept filled by precipitating methane.
Decades ago, planetary scientists such as David Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena had predicted that the seas might be mostly ethane. “It certainly wasn’t obvious that they would be methane-dominated,” Stevenson says. Part of the reason for that presupposition is that light coverts methane in the atmosphere to ethane. Over billions of years, this process would deplete Titan’s surface stores of methane unless it was kept resupplied by a reservoir. Some scientists have proposed that erupting cryovolcanoes or deep underground aquifers of liquid methane occasionally recharge Titan with methane. “There is an unsolved question underlying this,” Stevenson says. “Where does all the methane come from?”
*Correction, 17 December, 11 a.m.: This item originally used the phrase “bodies of water” to describe methane seas. We have struck the words “of water.”
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