Scientists Find Evidence of Extreme Methane Storms On Titan

Titan's atmosphere makes Saturn's largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is a mysterious place; and the more we learn about it, the more surprises it seems to have in store. Aside from being the only body beyond Earth that has a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, it also has methane lakes on its surface and methane clouds in its atmosphere. This hydrological-cycle, where methane is converted from a liquid to a gas and back again, is very similar to the water cycle here on Earth.

Thanks to the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission, which concluded on September 15th when the craft crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, we have learned a great deal about this moon in recent years. The latest find, which was made by a team of UCLA planetary scientists and geologists, has to do with Titan’s methane rain storms. Despite being a rare occurrence, these rainstorms can apparently become rather extreme.

The study which details their findings, titled “Regional Patterns of Extreme Precipitation on Titan Consistent with Observed Alluvial Fan Distribution“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience. Led by Saun P. Faulk, a graduate student at UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, the team conducted simulations of Titan’s rainfall to determine how extreme weather events have shaped the moon’s surface.

Image of Titan’s atmosphere, snapped by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

What they found was that the extreme methane rainstorms may imprint the moon’s icy surface in much the same way that extreme rainstorms shape Earth’s rocky surface. On Earth, intense rainstorms play an important role in geological evolution. When rainfall is heavy enough, storms can trigger large flows of water that transport sediment into low lands, where it forms cone-shaped features known as alluvial fans.

During it’s mission, the Cassini orbiter found evidence of similar features on Titan using its radar instrument, which suggested that Titan’s surface could be affected by intense rainfall. While these fans are a new discovery, scientists have been studying the surface of Titan ever since Cassini first reached the Saturn system in 2006. In that time, they have noted several interesting features.

These included the vast sand dunes that dominate Titan’s lower latitudes and the methane lakes and seas that dominate it’s higher latitudes – particularly around the  northern polar region. The seas – Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, and Punga Mare – measure hundreds of km across and up to several hundred meters deep, and are fed by branching, river-like channels. There are also many smaller, shallower lakes that have rounded edges and steep walls, and are generally found in flat areas.

In this case, the UCLA scientists found that the alluvial fans are predominantly located between 50 and 80 degrees latitude. This puts them close to the center of the northern and southern hemispheres, though slightly closer to the poles than the equator. To test how Titan’s own rainstorms could cause these features, the UCLA team relied on computer simulations of Titan’s hydrological cycle.

False-color mosaic of Titan’s northern lakes, made from infrared data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

What they found was that while rain mostly accumulates near the poles – where Titan’s major lakes and seas are located – the most intense rainstorms occur near 60 degrees latitude. This corresponds to the region where alluvial fans are most heavily concentrated, and indicates that when Titan does experience rainfall, it is quite extreme – like a seasonal monsoon-like downpour.

As Jonathan Mitchell – a UCLA associate professor of planetary science and a senior author of the study – indicated, this is not dissimilar to some extreme weather events that were recently experienced here on Earth. “The most intense methane storms in our climate model dump at least a foot of rain a day, which comes close to what we saw in Houston from Hurricane Harvey this summer,” he said.

The team also found that on Titan, methane rainstorms are rather rare, occurring less than once per Titan year – which works out to 29 and a half Earth years. But according to Mitchell, who is also the principal investigator of UCLA’s Titan climate modeling research group, this is more often than they were expecting. “I would have thought these would be once-a-millennium events, if even that,” he said. “So this is quite a surprise.”

In the past, climate models of Titan have suggested that liquid methane generally concentrates closer to the poles. But no previous study has investigated how precipitation might cause sediment transport and erosion, or shown how this would account for various features observed on the surface. As a result, this study also suggests that regional variations in surface features could be caused by regional variations in precipitation.

On top of that, this study is an indication that Earth and Titan have even more in common than previously thought. On Earth, contrasts in temperature are what lead to intense seasonal weather events. In North America, tornadoes occur during the early to late Spring, while blizzards occur during the winter. Meanwhile, temperature variations in the Atlantic ocean are what lead to hurricanes forming between the summer and fall.

Similarly, it appears that on Titan, serious variations in temperature and moisture are what triggers extreme weather. When cooler, wetter air from the higher latitudes interacts with warmer, drier air from the lower latitudes, intense rainstorms result. These findings are also significant when it comes to other bodies in our Solar System that  have alluvial fans on them – such as Mars.

In the end, understanding the relationship between precipitation and planetary surfaces could lead to new insights about the impact climate change has on Earth and the other planets. Such knowledge would also go a long way towards helping us mitigate the effects it is having here on Earth, where the changes are only unnatural, but also sudden and very hazardous.

And who knows? Someday, it could even help us to alter the environments on other planets and bodies, thus making them more suitable for long-term human settlement (aka. terraforming)!

Further Reading: UCLA, Nature

Cassini Finds that Titan is Building the Chemicals that Might Have Led to Life on Earth

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, has been a source of mystery ever since scientists began studying it over a century ago. These mysteries have only deepened with the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens mission in the system back in 2004. In addition to finding evidence of a methane cycle, prebiotic conditions and organic chemistry, the Cassini-Huygens mission has also discovered that Titan may have the ingredient that help give rise to life.

Such is the argument made in a recent study by an international team of scientists. After examining data obtained by the Cassini space probe, they identified a negatively charged species of molecule in Titan’s atmosphere. Known as “carbon chain anions”, these molecules are thought to be building blocks for more complex molecules, which could played a key role in the emergence of life of Earth.

The study, titled “Carbon Chain Anions and the Growth of Complex Organic Molecules in Titan’s Ionosphere“, recently appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team included researchers from University College in London, the University of Grenoble, Uppsalla University, UCL/Birkbeck, the University of Colorado, the Swedish Institute of Space Physics, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

As they indicate in their study, these molecules were detected by the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) as the probe flew through Titan’s upper atmosphere at an distance of 950 – 1300 km (590  – 808 mi) from the surface. They also show how the presence of these molecules was rather unexpected, and represent a considerable challenge to current theories about how Titan’s atmosphere works.

For some time, scientists have understood that within Titan’s ionosphere, nitrogen, carbon and hydrogen are subjected to sunlight and energetic particles from Saturn’s magnetosphere. This exposure drives a process where these elements are transformed into more complex prebiotic compounds, which then drift down towards the lower atmosphere and form a thick haze of organic aerosols that are thought to eventually reach the surface.

This has been the subject of much interest, since the process through which simple molecules form complex organic ones has remained something of a mystery to scientists. This could be coming to an end thanks to the detection of carbon chain anions, though their discovery was altogether unexpected. Since these molecules are highly reactive, they are not expected to last long in Titan’s atmosphere before combining with other materials.

However, the data showed that the carbon chains became depleted closer to the moon, while precursors to larger aerosol molecules underwent rapid growth. This suggests that there is a close relationship between the two, with the chains ‘seeding’ the larger molecules. Already, scientists have held that these molecules were an important part of the process that allowed for life to form on Earth, billions of years ago.

A halo of light surrounds Saturn’s moon Titan in this backlit picture, showing its atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

However, their discovery on Titan could be an indication of how life begins to emerge throughout the Universe. As Dr. Ravi Desai, University College London and the lead author of the study, explained in an ESA press release:

“We have made the first unambiguous identification of carbon chain anions in a planet-like atmosphere, which we believe are a vital stepping-stone in the production line of growing bigger, and more complex organic molecules, such as the moon’s large haze particles. This is a known process in the interstellar medium, but now we’ve seen it in a completely different environment, meaning it could represent a universal process for producing complex organic molecules.”

Because of its dense nitrogen and methane atmosphere and the presence of some of the most complex chemistry in the Solar System, Titan is thought by many to be similar to Earth’s early atmosphere. Billions of years ago, before the emergence of microorganisms that allowed for subsequent build-up of oxygen, it is likely that Earth had a thick atmosphere composed of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and inert gases.

Therefore, Titan is often viewed as a sort planetary laboratory, where the chemical reactions that may have led to life on Earth could be studied. However, the prospect of finding a universal pathway towards the ingredients for life has implications that go far beyond Earth. In fact, astronomers could start looking for these same molecules on exoplanets, in an attempt to determine which could give rise to life.

This illustration shows Cassini above Saturn’s northern hemisphere prior to one of its 22 Grand Finale dives. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Closer to home, the findings could also be significant in the search for life in our own Solar System. “The question is, could it also be happening within other nitrogen-methane atmospheres like at Pluto or Triton, or at exoplanets with similar properties?” asked Desia. And Nicolas Altobelli, the Project Scientist for the Cassini-Huygens mission, added:

These inspiring results from Cassini show the importance of tracing the journey from small to large chemical species in order to understand how complex organic molecules are produced in an early Earth-like atmosphere. While we haven’t detected life itself, finding complex organics not just at Titan, but also in comets and throughout the interstellar medium, we are certainly coming close to finding its precursors.

Cassini’s “Grande Finale“, the culmination of its 13-year mission around Saturn and its system of moons, is set to end on September 15th, 2017. In fact, as of the penning of this article, the mission will end in about 1 month, 18 days, 16 hours, and 10 minutes. After making its final pass between Saturn’s rings, the probe will be de-orbited into Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent contamination of the system’s moons.

However, future missions like the James Webb Space Telescope, the ESA’s PLATO mission and ground-based telescopes like ALMA are expected to make some significant exoplanet finds in the coming years. Knowing specifically what kinds of molecules are intrinsic in converting common elements into organic molecules will certainly help narrow down the search for habitable (or even inhabited) planets!

Further Reading: ESA, The Astrophysical Journal Letters