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.)
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 radar imaging passes (NASA/JPL/USGS)
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.

Happy Holidays from Cassini!

Cassini couldn’t make it to the mall this year to do any Christmas shopping but that’s ok: we’re all getting something even better in our stockings than anything store-bought! To celebrate the holiday season the Cassini team has shared some truly incredible images of Saturn and some of its many moons for the world to “ooh” and “ahh” over. So stoke the fire, pour yourself a glass of egg nog, sit back and marvel at some sights from a wintry wonderland 900 million miles away…

Thanks, Cassini… these are just what I’ve always wanted! (How’d you know?)

Saturn’s southern hemisphere is growing more and more blue as winter approaches there — a coloration similar to what was once seen in the north when Cassini first arrived in 2004:

Saturn's southern hemisphere images from a million miles away (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Saturn’s southern hemisphere images from a million miles away (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

(The small dark spot near the center right of the image above is the shadow of the shepherd moon Prometheus.)

Titan and Rhea, Saturn’s two largest moons, pose for Cassini:

Rhea (front) and Titan, images by Cassini in June 2011 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Rhea (front) and Titan, images by Cassini in June 2011 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The two moons may look like they’re almost touching but in reality they were nearly half a million miles apart!

Titan’s northern “land of lakes” is visible in this image, captured by Cassini with a special spectral filter able to pierce through the moon’s thick haze:

Titan images by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Titan images by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

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

The frozen, snowball-like surface of the 313-mile-wide moon Enceladus:

Enceladus: a "snowball in space" (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Enceladus: a highly-reflective and icy “snowball in space” (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

(Even though Enceladus is most famous for its icy geysers, first observed by Cassini in 2005, in these images they are not visible due to the lighting situations.)

Seen in a different illumination angle and in filters sensitive to UV, visible, and infrared light the many fractures and folds of Enceladus’ frozen surface become apparent:

View of the trailing face of Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
View of the trailing face of Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Because of Cassini’s long-duration, multi-season stay in orbit around Saturn, researchers have been able to learn more about the ringed planet and its fascinating family of moons than ever before possible. Cassini is now going into its tenth year at Saturn and with much more research planned, we can only imagine what discoveries (and images!) are yet to come in the new year(s) ahead.

“Until Cassini arrived at Saturn, we didn’t know about the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, the active drama of Enceladus’ jets, and the intricate patterns at Saturn’s poles,” said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Spectacular images like these highlight that Cassini has given us the gift of knowledge, which we have been so excited to share with everyone.”

Read more about the images above and see even more on the CICLOPS  Imaging Team website, and see the NASA press release here.

Thanks to Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, for the heads-up on these gifs — er, gifts!

Titan’s North Pole is Loaded With Lakes

A combination of exceptionally clear weather, the steady approach of northern summer, and a poleward orbital path has given Cassini — and Cassini scientists — unprecedented views of countless lakes scattered across Titan’s north polar region. In the near-infrared mosaic above they can be seen as dark splotches and speckles scattered around the moon’s north pole. Previously observed mainly via radar, these are the best visual and infrared wavelength images ever obtained of Titan’s northern “land o’ lakes!”

 

Titan is currently the only other world besides Earth known to have stable bodies of liquid on its surface, but unlike Earth, Titan’s lakes aren’t filled with water — instead they’re full of liquid methane and ethane, organic compounds which are gases on Earth but liquids in Titan’s incredibly chilly -290º F (-180º C) environment.

While one large lake and a few smaller ones have been previously identified at Titan’s south pole, curiously almost all of Titan’s lakes appear near the moon’s north pole.

Infrared observations of Titan's northern lakes (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Infrared observations of Titan’s northern lakes. The cross marks Titan’s geographic north pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

For an idea of scale, the large lake at the upper right above (and the largest lake on Titan) Kraken Mare is comparative in size to the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior combined. Kraken Mare is so large that sunlight was seen reflecting off its surface in 2009. Punga Mare, nearest Titan’s pole, is 240 miles (386 km) across.

Besides revealing the (uncannily) smooth surfaces of lakes — which appear dark in near-infrared wavelengths but would also be darker than the surrounding landscape in visible light —  these Cassini images also show an unusually bright terrain surrounding them. Since the majority of Titan’s lakes are found within this bright region it’s thought that there could be a geologic correlation; is this Titan’s version of karst terrain, like what’s found in the southeastern U.S. and New Mexico? Could these lakes be merely the visible surfaces of a vast underground hydrocarbon aquifer? Or are they shallow pools filling depressions in an ancient lava flow?

Annotated infrared mosaic of Titan's north pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Annotated infrared mosaic of Titan’s north pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Or, are they the remains of once-larger lakes and seas which have since evaporated? The orange-hued regions in the false-color mosaic may be evaporite — the Titan equivalent of salt flats on Earth. The evaporated material is thought to be organic chemicals originally from Titan’s haze particles that were once dissolved in liquid methane.

“Is this an indication that with increased warmth, the seas and lakes are starting to evaporate, leaving behind a deposit of organic material,” wrote Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, in an email earlier today. “…in other words, the Titan equivalent of a salt-flat?”

The largest lake at Titan’s south pole, Ontario Lacus, has been previously compared to such an ephemeral lake in Namibia called the Etosha Pan. (Read more here.)

These observations are only possible because of the extended and long-term study of Saturn and its family of moons by the Cassini spacecraft, which began with its establishing orbit in 2004 and has since continued across multiple seasons over a third of the ringed planet’s year. The existence of methane lakes on Titan is undoubtedly fascinating, but how deep the lakes are, where they came from and how they behave in Titan’s environment have yet to be discovered. Luckily, the changing season is on our side.

“Titan’s northern lakes region is one of the most Earth-like and intriguing in the solar system,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We know lakes here change with the seasons, and Cassini’s long mission at Saturn gives us the opportunity to watch the seasons change at Titan, too. Now that the sun is shining in the north and we have these wonderful views, we can begin to compare the different data sets and tease out what Titan’s lakes are doing near the north pole.”

The images shown above were obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) during a close flyby of Titan on Sept. 12, 2013.

Read more on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) site here and on the NASA site here.

“But how thrilling it is to still be uncovering new territory on this fascinating moon… a place that, until Cassini’s arrival at Saturn nearly 10 years ago, was the largest single expanse of unseen terrain we had remaining in our solar system. Our adventures here have been the very essence of exploration. And it’s not over yet!”

– Carolyn Porco on Facebook

An illustration of a Titanic lake by Ron Miller. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
An illustration of a Titanic lake © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Also, check out a corresponding article and intriguing illustration of robotic Titan exploration by space artist extraordinaire Ron Miller on io9.com.

Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

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New research on Jupiter’s ice-covered moon Europa indicates the presence of a subsurface lake buried beneath frozen mounds of huge jumbled chunks of ice. While it has long been believed that Europa’s ice lies atop a deep underground ocean, these new findings support the possibility of large pockets of liquid water being much closer to the moon’s surface — as well as energy from the Sun — and ultimately boosting the possibility it could contain life.

During a press conference today, November 16 at 1 p.m. EST, researchers Britney Schmidt, Tori Hoeler, Louise Prockter and Tom Wagner presented new theories concerning the creation of “chaos terrain” on Europa.

Chaos terrain is exactly what it sounds like: irregularly-shaped landforms and surface textures on a world. In the case of Europa, the terrain is made of water ice that evidence shows has been loosened by the motion of liquid water beneath, expanded, and then has refrozen into hills and jagged mounds.

Topographic data shows the chaos terrain elevations above the surrounding surface. Reds and purples are the highest elevations. Credit: NASA

These mounds are visible in topographic data acquired by the Galileo spacecraft in 1998.

During the presentation a good analogy for the processes at work on Europa was made by Britney Schmidt, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the paper. She demonstrated the formation of Europa’s “mosh pit of icebergs” using a drinking glass partially filled with ice cubes. When water was added to the glass, the ice cubes naturally rose up and shifted orientation. Should the water beneath them refreeze, as it would in the frigid environments found in the Jovian system, the ice cubes would be held fast in their new expanded, “chaotic” positions.

“Now we see evidence that it’s a thick ice shell that can mix vigorously, and new evidence for giant shallow lakes. That could make Europa and its ocean more habitable.”

– Britney Schmidt, lead author

Similar processes have also been seen occurring on Earth, both in Antarctica along the edges of ice shelves and in Greenland, where glaciers continually break apart and flow into the sea – often rolling over themselves and each other in the process.

Europa's "Great Lake." Scientists speculate many more exist throughout the shallow regions of the moon's icy shell. Image Credit: Britney Schmidt/Dead Pixel FX/Univ. of Texas at Austin.

The importance of these findings is that scientists finally have a model that demonstrates how Europa’s deep liquid ocean interacts with the ice near its surface in such a way as to allow for the transportation of energy and nutrients.

“This is the first time that anyone has come up with an end-to-end model that explains what we see on the surface,” said APL senior planetary scientist Louise Prockter.

With such strong evidence for this process, the likelihood that Europa could harbor environments friendly to life goes up dramatically.

“The potential for exchange of material between the surface and subsurface is a big key for astrobiology,” said Wes Patterson, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., and a co-author of the study. “Europa’s subsurface harbors much of what we believe is necessary for life but chemical nutrients found at the surface are likely vital for driving biology.”

Although the research favors the existence of these lakes, however, confirmation of such has not yet been found. That will require a future mission to Europa and the direct investigation of its icy surface – and what lies beneath.

Luckily a Europa mission was recently rated as one of the highest priority flagship missions by the National Research Council’s Planetary Science Decadal Survey and is currently being studied by NASA.

“If we’re ever to send a landed mission to Europa, these areas would be great places to study,” Prockter said.

Read more about this discovery in the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory press release, or in the NASA news release here. Also, watch the full conference recorded on Ustream below: