Categories: CassiniTitan

Surf’s Up on Titan! Cassini May Have Spotted Waves in Titan’s Seas

It’s no surprise that Titan’s north polar region is covered with vast lakes and seas of liquid methane — these have been imaged many times by Cassini during its ten years in orbit around Saturn. What is surprising though is just how incredibly smooth the surfaces of these lakes have been found to be.

One would think that such large expanses of surface liquid — some of Titan’s seas are as big the Great Lakes — would exhibit at least a little surface action on a world with an atmosphere as dense as Titan’s. But repeated radar imaging has shown their surfaces to be “as smooth as the paint on a car.” Over the past several years scientists have puzzled over this anomaly but now they may have truly seen the light — that is, reflected light from what could actually be waves on Titan!

Seasonal winds may be finally kicking up waves in Titan’s lakes. (Illustration © Ron Miller.)

Using data acquired during flybys of Titan in 2012 and 2013, planetary scientist Jason Barnes from the University of Idaho and a team of researchers from several other institutions including JPL, Cornell, and MIT, have identified what might be waves in the surface of Punga Mare, one of Titan’s biggest lakes.

For a sense of scale, Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, could fit lengthwise across Titan’s 380-km (236-mile) -wide Punga Mare.

Read more: Titan’s North Pole is Loaded with Lakes

Variations in specular highlights in four pixels observed in the surface of Punga Mare by Cassini’s VIMS (Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) have been interpreted by the team as being the result of waves — or, perhaps more accurately, ripples, seeing as that they are estimated to be a mere 2 centimeters in height.

Still, based on what’s been observed thus far on Titan, that’s downright choppy.

If the Cassini observations interpreted by Barnes et al. are indicative of waves in Punga Mare, they could also explain previous specular variations seen in other bodies of liquid, like the smaller Kivu Lacus (top image).

Map of Titan’s northern “Land o’ Lakes” made from Cassini high-resolution radar imaging (NASA/JPL/USGS)

“If correct this discovery represents the first sea-surface waves known outside of Earth.”

– Jason W. Barnes et al.

Then again, wave action isn’t the only possible answer. Similar varied specular highlights could also be caused by a wet surface — like a methane mud flat. Further observations will be needed to rule out other possibilities and obtain a more accurate “surf forecast” for Titan.

The findings were presented by Jason Barnes at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston on March 17, 2014. Read the team’s abstract here, and read more in this article by Alexandra Witze on Nature News.

Jason Major

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Recent Posts

About 3% of Starlinks Have Failed So Far

A new analysis indicates that 3% of Starlink satellites have failed since they were launched…

8 hours ago

New Receiver Will Boost Interplanetary Communication

As we explore the solar system, we'll need an interplanetary communication network that can keep…

11 hours ago

Geologists Have Found the Earth’s Missing Tectonic Plate

Northern Canada has been keeping a secret from the rest of the world. It's home…

1 day ago

Astronomers Find the Hollowed-Out Shell of a Dwarf Galaxy that Collided With the Milky Way Billions of Years Ago

In 2005 astronomers found a dense grouping of stars in the Virgo constellation. It looked…

2 days ago

Astronomers Challenge Recent Findings About Venus. “No Statistically Significant Detection of Phosphine”

In September, a team of scientists reported finding phosphine in the upper atmosphere of Venus.…

2 days ago

Scientists Think They Know What Caused the Deadliest Mass Extinction in the History of the Earth

Humanity can have a love/hate relationship with itself, but there's no denying that we're the…

2 days ago