Lakes on two worlds

Montage of lake reflections on Earth and Titan.
Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL / University of Arizona / DLR / Planetary Landscapes

This is a beautiful montage showing sunlight reflecting off lakes on two different worlds. A water lake (of course) on Earth and a methane lake on Saturn’s moon Titan. While the composition is quite different, the hydrological and methanological processes are remarkably similar, with rain, rivers, lakes and seas. Familiar but alien at the same time… Thanks to Planetary Landscapes for use of this image!

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.

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Boating on Titan: new mission proposal for exploring an alien lake

Radar image of Ligeia Mare, the largest lake on Titan, with associated river channels. Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is in many ways one of the most Earth-like places in the solar system. More like a planet than most moons, it is the only other world, so far anyway, known to have lakes on its surface. Similar to the hydrological cycle on Earth, the lakes are filled by rain, which also creates rivers and streams. Titan, however, is much colder than Earth, so the liquid is methane / ethane, not water.

This discovery has made Titan one of the most fascinating destinations for further exploration. The Cassini spacecraft has increased our knowledge many-fold, but there is only so much that can be done from orbit. But now a new mission proposal may change that, one which would actually send a boat to land in one of the lakes in the northern hemisphere.

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Saturn and Titan pose for Cassini

Titan floats in front of Saturn as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has returned some beautiful new images of Saturn and its largest moon Titan. The photo above shows Titan passing in front of Saturn from Cassini’s viewpoint; Saturn’s rings are seen almost edge-on with their shadows below them arcing across Saturn’s atmosphere. Simply breathtaking…

Additional images are here and the image advisory is here.

The puzzling rivers of Titan

Cassini radar image showing some of Titan’s river networks draining into lakes in the north polar region.
Credit: NASA / JPL / USGS

Just like Earth, Saturn’s moon Titan has rivers, lots of them, as well as lakes and seas. Appearance-wise, they look just like their earthly counterparts, but there is one big difference – they are composed of liquid methane instead of water. Titan is far too cold for liquid water on its surface, although there is probably a subsurface ocean.

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Huge vortex seen churning around Titan’s south pole

True colour image of the atmospheric vortex swirling around Titan’s south pole. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

Like Earth, Saturn’s moon Titan has weather – rain (liquid methane) and wind have created the surface we see today, which resembles that of our own planet, with sand dunes, rivers, lakes and seas. Titan is a very active place, although you may not know it just looking at it from space; a perpetual smog-like haze, made of organic compunds, surrounds the moon, blocking our view of the surface. In general this haze is very bland-looking, making Titan resemble a featureless, orange-ish ping-pong ball.

But at times, Titan’s weather processes are in full view. The Cassini spacecraft has just sent back some amazing new images, taken on June 27, 2012, which show an amazing phenomenon – a huge, swirling vortex high up in the atmosphere, rotating around Titan’s south pole (see here for video clip).

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Cassini finds new evidence for subsurface ocean on Titan

Artist’s conception of Titan’s interior based on the new findings. Credit: A. Tavani / NASA / JPL

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and one of the most fascinating places in the solar system, is a world of rain, rivers, lakes and seas. Unlike Earth though, this alien hydrological cycle is composed of liquid methane rather than water, since the temperatures on Titan are far colder than even at the poles of our own planet.

It had long been theorized, however, that liquid water could actually exist on Titan – underground. Gravitational tugging from Saturn could create enough heat inside Titan to maintain a layer of water, similar to that on another Saturn moon, Enceladus and one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa (and possibly others as well). Literally, an underground ocean.

Now, new evidence from the Cassini orbiter has indicated that there most likely is indeed a Titanian ocean.

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