Think Titan looks pretty round?
Not quite, according to new data released today by the Cassini radar team — and slight irregularities in the shape of the bizarre moon may account for the concentration of lakes at the highest latitudes, among other perplexing features.
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The radar image above, obtained by Cassini’s radar instrument during a near-polar flyby in 2007, shows a big island smack in the middle of one of the larger lakes imaged on Saturn’s moon Titan. The island is about 90 kilometers (62 miles) by 150 kilometers (93 miles) across, about the size of Kodiak Island in Alaska or the Big Island of Hawaii. The image is centered at about 79 north degrees north (north is left) and 310 degrees west, adding weight to the theory that most of Titan’s lakes occur near the poles.
Titan is an intriguing object partly because its climate cycles are reminiscent of Earth’s, but tend to rely on hydrocarbons like methane and ethane instead of water — which couldn’t exist in a liquid state at temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero. Methane and ethane fill the air with a smoggy haze that rains down as ash. Sometimes it’s washed away by hydrocarbons that flow like gasoline and collect in black lakes with surfaces as smooth as glass.
Cassini has been orbiting Saturn for four years, observing Titan periodically with multiple radar instruments. A research team led by Howard Zebker, a geophysicist at Stanford University, has been using the radar data to estimate the surface elevation. Combined, two instruments — a nadir-pointing radar altimeter and a multiple-beam synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging system — measure the time delay of the altimeter echoes and the precise radar beam angles to points on the surface.
“These techniques show that the poles of Titan lie at lower elevations than the equator, and that the topography also varies longitudinally,” the authors report in today’s Science Express..
“If we posit that the lakes are surface expressions of a more or less continuous liquid organic ‘water table,’ then the lower elevations of the poles could lead to the observed preponderance of lakes at high latitudes,” they add. In other words, the lower elevations of poles may make them the only places where any continuous, liquid “water table” would be close enough to the moon’s surface to appear as lakes.
Titan’s overall shape, they suggest, might be that a sphere slightly flattened at the top and bottom. The exact mechanisms behind the oblate shape are unclear. Titan is also elongated toward Saturn, due to the tides raised by Saturn’s gravity.