Cry Me a Nile-Like River of Liquid Hydrocarbons on Titan

by Nancy Atkinson on December 13, 2012

This image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows a vast river system on Saturn’s moon Titan. It is the first time images from space have revealed a river system so vast and in such high resolution anywhere other than Earth. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Titan is appearing more Earth-like all the time (yes, a very cold, and early version of Earth), as now the Cassini spacecraft has spotted what appears to be a miniature extraterrestrial version of the Nile River: a river valley on Saturn’s moon Titan that extends from what looks like ‘headwaters’ out to a large sea. Not only is it a riverbed, but it appears to be filled with liquid; likely very cold hydrocarbons such as ethane or methane.


Scientists deduce that the river is filled with liquid because it appears dark along its entire extent in the high-resolution radar image, indicating a smooth surface.

It is the first time images have revealed a river system this vast and in such high resolution anywhere beyond Earth.

“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,” says Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University, USA. “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.”

While the Earthly Nile River is 6,650 kilometers (4,132 miles) long, Titan’s big river is about 400 km long.

Titan is the only other world we know of that has stable liquid on its surface. While Earth’s hydrologic cycle relies on water, Titan’s equivalent cycle involves hydrocarbons.

Images from Cassini’s visible-light cameras in late 2010 revealed regions that darkened after recent rainfall.

Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer confirmed liquid ethane at a lake in Titan’s southern hemisphere known as Ontario Lacus in 2008.

“This radar-imaged river by Cassini provides another fantastic snapshot of a world in motion, which was first hinted at from the images of channels and gullies seen by ESA’s Huygens probe as it descended to the moon’s surface in 2005,” said Nicolas Altobelli, ESA’s Cassini Project Scientist.

See a full-sized image of Titan’s river here.

Source: ESA

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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