Cassini finds alien version of ‘Nile River’ on Titan

Titan’s version of the Nile River stretches across this radar image; part of the Ligeia Mare sea is also visible on the right side of the image. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASI

Want to go river rafting on Titan? The largest moon of Saturn is the only other place in the solar system known to have rivers, lakes and seas on its surface. Appearance-wise, they are eerily similar to their earthly counterparts, but are composed of liquid methane instead of water, in Titan’s extremely cold environment. Now, the Cassini spacecraft has found the largest Titanian river system yet, similar to the Nile River on Earth, as announced on December 12, 2012.

The new radar images show the long, branching river system which stretches for more than 400 kilometres (200 miles) across the surface, terminating in one of the large seas, called Ligeia Mare.

Never before has one of these features been seen in this much detail. Radar images are necessary to see Titan’s surface, due to the permanent, thick hydrocarbon “smog” which shrouds the entire moon.

According to Cassini radar team associate Jani Radebaugh, “Though there are some short, local meanders, the relative straightness of the river valley suggests it follows the trace of at least one fault, similar to other large rivers running into the southern margin of this same Titan sea. Such faults – fractures in Titan’s bedrock – may not imply plate tectonics, like on Earth, but still lead to the opening of basins and perhaps to the formation of the giant seas themselves.”

Regarding Titan’s alien “hydrological cycle,” Steve Wall, the radar deputy team lead, explains: “Titan is the only place we’ve found besides Earth that has a liquid in continuous movement on its surface. This picture gives us a snapshot of a world in motion. Rain falls, and rivers move that rain to lakes and seas, where evaporation starts the cycle all over again. On Earth, the liquid is water; on Titan, it’s methane; but on both it affects most everything that happens.”

A full-resolution version of the image can be seen here.

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