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

New Study Provides Explanation for Pluto’s Giant Blades of Ice

When it made its historic flyby of Pluto in July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft gave scientists and the general public the first clear picture of what this distant dwarf planet looks like. In addition to providing breathtaking images of Pluto’s “heart”, its frozen plains, and mountain chains, one of the more interesting features it detected was Pluto’s mysterious “bladed terrain”.

According to data obtained by New Horizons, these features are made almost entirely out of methane ice and resemble giant blades. At the time of their discovery, what caused these features remained unknown. But according to new research by members of the New Horizons team, it is possible that these features are the result of a specific kind of erosion that is related to Pluto’s complex climate and geological history.

Ever since the New Horizons probe provided a detailed look at Pluto’s geological features, the existence of these jagged ridges has been a source of mystery. They are located at the highest altitudes on Pluto’s surface near it’s equator, and can reach several hundred feet in altitude. In that respect, they are similar to penitentes, a type of structure found in high-altitude snowfields along Earth’s equator.

Penitentes, on the southern end of the Chajnantor plain in Chile. Credits: Wikimedia Commons/ESO

These structures are formed through sublimation, where atmospheric water vapor freezes to form standing, blade-like ice structures. The process is based on sublimation, where rapid changes in temperature cause water to transition from a vapor to a solid (and back again) without changing into a liquid state in between. With this in mind, the research team considered various mechanisms for the formation of these ridges on Pluto.

What they determined was that Pluto’s bladed terrain was the result of atmospheric methane freezing at extreme altitudes on Pluto, which then led to ice structures similar to the ones found on Earth.The team was led by Jeffrey Moore, a research scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who was also a New Horizons’ team member. As he explained in a NASA press statement:

“When we realized that bladed terrain consists of tall deposits of methane ice, we asked ourselves why it forms all of these ridges, as opposed to just being big blobs of ice on the ground. It turns out that Pluto undergoes climate variation and sometimes, when Pluto is a little warmer, the methane ice begins to basically ‘evaporate’ away.”

But unlike on Earth, the erosion of these features are related to changes that take place over the course of eons. This should come as no surprise seeing as how Pluto’s orbital period is 248 years (or 90,560 Earth days), meaning it takes this long to complete a single orbit around the Sun. In addition, the eccentric nature of it orbit means that its distance from the Sun ranges considerably, from 29.658 AU at perihelion to 49.305 AU at aphelion.

Maps based on New Horizons’ data on the topography (top) and composition (bottom) of Pluto’s surface. Both indicate the section of Pluto where the bladed terrain was observed. Credits: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/LPI

When the planet is farthest from the Sun, methane freezes out of the atmosphere at high altitudes. And as it gets closer to the Sun, these ice features melt and turn directly into atmospheric vapor again. As a result of this discovery, we now know that the surface and air of Pluto are apparently far more dynamic than previously thought. Much in the same way that Earth has a water cycle, Pluto may have a methane cycle.

This discovery could also allow scientists to map out locations of Pluto which were not photographed in high-detail. When the New Horizons mission conducted its flyby, it took high-resolution pictures of only one side of Pluto – designated as the “encounter hemisphere”. However, it was only able to observe the other side at lower resolution, which prevented it from being mapped in detail.

But based on this new study, NASA researchers and their collaborators have been able to conclude that these sharp ridges may be a widespread feature on Pluto’s “far side”. The study is also significant in that it advances our understanding of Pluto’s global geography and topography, both past and present. This is due to the fact that it demonstrated a link between atmospheric methane and high-altitude features. As such, researchers can now infer elevations on Pluto by looking for concentrations of methane in its atmosphere.

Not long ago, Pluto was considered one of the least-understood bodies in our Solar System, thanks to its immense distance from the Sun. However, thanks to ongoing studies made possible by the data collected by the New Horizons mission, scientists are becoming increasingly familiar with what its surface looks like, not to mention the types of geological and climatological forces that have shaped it over time.

And be sure to enjoy this video that details the discovery of Pluto’s bladed terrain, courtesy of NASA’s Ames Research Center:

Further Reading: NASA