Icy Hot: Europa’s Frozen Crust Could Be Warmer Than We Thought

All the worlds may be ours except Europa but that only makes the ice-covered moon of Jupiter all the more intriguing. Beneath Europa’s thin crust of ice lies a tantalizing global ocean of liquid water somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 kilometers deep—which adds up to more liquid water than is on the entire surface of the Earth. Liquid water plus a heat source(s) to keep it liquid plus the organic compounds necessary for life and…well, you know where the thought process naturally goes from there.

And now it turns out Europa may have even more of a heat source than we thought. Yes, a big component of Europa’s water-liquefying warmth comes from tidal stresses enacted by the massive gravity of Jupiter as well as from the other large Galilean moons. But exactly how much heat is created within the moon’s icy crust as it flexes has so far only been loosely estimated. Now, researchers from Brown University in Providence, RI and Columbia University in New York City have modeled how friction creates heat within ice under stress, and the results were surprising.

Continue reading “Icy Hot: Europa’s Frozen Crust Could Be Warmer Than We Thought”

What Is a Tsunami?

For people living in oceanfront communities, the prospect of a tsunami is a frightening one. Much like earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes, tsunamis are one of the most destructive natural forces on the planet. And much like these other phenomena, they require the right conditions to happen and are more common in some areas of the world than others.

Knowing how and when a tsunami will strike has therefore a subject of great interest for scientists over the ages. But for anyone who has lived in certain parts of the world where “tsunami zones” are common – namely Japan and the South Pacific – it is a matter of survival.

Numerous terms are used in the English language to describe large waves created by the displacement of water, with varying degrees of accuracy. The term tsunami, for example, is literally translated from Japanese to mean “harbor wave”. There are only a few other languages that have an equivalent native word, though similar meanings can be found in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Indian Subcontinent.

The term tidal wave has also been used, which is derived from the most common appearance of a tsunami – an extraordinarily high tidal bore. However, in recent years, the term “tidal wave” has fallen out of favor with the scientific community because tsunami actually have nothing to do with tides, which are produced by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun rather than the displacement of water.

Tsunamis initiate when an earthquake causes the seabed to rupture, which leads to a rapid decrease in sea surface height directly above it. Credit: howitworksdaily.com
Tsunamis initiate when an earthquake causes the seabed to rupture, which leads to a rapid decrease in sea surface height directly above it. Credit: howitworksdaily.com

The term seismic sea wave also is used to refer to the phenomenon, due to the fact that the waves most often are generated by seismic activity such as earthquakes. However, like “tsunami,” “seismic sea wave” is not a completely accurate term, as forces other than earthquakes – including underwater landslides, volcanic eruptions, underwater explosions, land or ice slumping into the ocean, meteorite impacts, or even sudden changes in weather – can generate such waves by displacing water.

The principal cause of a tsunami is the displacement of a substantial volume of water or perturbation of the sea. This is usually the result of earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, glacier calvings, or more rarely by meteorites and nuclear tests. The waves formed in this way are then sustained by gravity.

Tectonic earthquakes trigger tsunamis when the sea floor abruptly deforms and vertically displaces the water above. More specifically, a tsunami can be generated when thrust faults associated with convergent or destructive plate boundaries move abruptly and displace water.

Tsunamis have a small amplitude (wave height) offshore, and a very long wavelength (often hundreds of kilometers long), and only grow in height when they reach shallower water. Once there, the wavelength shortens as the wave encounters resistance, thus increasing the amplitude increases and causing the wave to rears up in a massive tidal bore.

In the 1950s, it was discovered that tsunamis larger than what had previously been believed possible could be caused by giant submarine landslides. These rapidly displace large water volumes, as energy transfers to the water at a rate faster than the water can absorb. Their existence was confirmed in 1958, when a giant landslide in Lituya Bay, Alaska, caused the highest wave ever recorded (524 meters/1700 feet).

 A village near the coast of Sumatra that was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. Credit: US Navy
A village near the coast of Sumatra that was devastated by the Tsunami that struck South-East Asia in 2004. Credit: US Navy/Public Domain

In general, landslides generate displacements mainly in the shallower parts of the coastline, such as in closed bays and lakes. But an open oceanic landslide large enough to cause a tsunami across an ocean has not yet happened since the advent of modern seismology, and only rarely in human history.

Meteorological phenomena, such tropical cyclones, can generate a storm surge that will cause sea levels to rise, often in coastal regions. These are what is known as meteotsunamis, which are tsunamis triggered by sudden changes in weather. When such tsunamis reach shore, they rear up in shallows and surge laterally, just like earthquake-generated tsunamis.

Tsunamis can also be triggered by external factors, such as meteors or human intervention. For instance, when a meteor of significant strikes a region of the ocean, the resulting impact is enough to displace high volumes of water, thus triggering a tsunami. There has also been much speculation since World War II of how a nuclear detonations have trigger a tsunami, but all attempts at research (especially in the Pacific) have yielded poor results.

Characteristics and Effects:
Tsunamis can travel at well over 800 kilometers per hour (500 mph), but as they approach the coast, wave shoaling compresses the wave and its speed decreases to below 80 kilometers per hour (50 mph). A tsunami in the deep ocean has a much larger wavelength of up to 200 kilometers (120 mi), but diminishes to less than 20 kilometers (12 mi) when it reaches shallow water.

When the tsunami’s wave peak reaches the shore, the resulting temporary rise in sea level is termed run up. Run up is measured in metres above a reference sea level. A large tsunami may feature multiple waves arriving over a period of hours, with significant time between the wave crests.

Tsunamis cause damage by two mechanisms. First, there is the smashing force of a wall of water traveling at high speed, while the second is the destructive power of a large volume of water draining off the land and carrying a large amount of debris with it.

It is often difficult for people to recognize a tsunami in the open ocean because the waves are much smaller further out at sea than they are close to shore. As with earthquakes, several attempts have been made to set up scales of tsunami intensity or magnitude to allow comparison between different events.

Ships try to extinguish a blaze at oil refinery tanks in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, which has been burning since Friday's earthquake and tsunami Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1366395/Japan-tsunami-earthquake-Rescuers-pick-way-apocalypse-wasteland.html#ixzz3dvVfz0hr Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook Credit: EPA
Ships try to extinguish a blaze at oil refinery tanks in Ichihara, Chiba Prefecture, after the tsunami that struck in March, 2011. Credit: EPA

The first scales used routinely to measure the intensity of tsunami were the Sieberg-Ambraseys scale, used in the Mediterranean Sea and the Imamura-Iida intensity scale, used in the Pacific Ocean. This latter scale was modified by Soloviev to become the Soloviev-Imamura tsunami intensity scale, which is used in the global tsunami catalogs compiled by the NGDC/NOAA and the Novosibirsk Tsunami Laboratory as the main parameter for the size of the tsunami.

In 2013, following the intensively studied tsunamis in 2004 and 2011, a new 12 point scale was proposed, known as the Integrated Tsunami Intensity Scale (ITIS-2012). This scale was intended to match as closely as possible to the modified ESI2007 and EMS earthquake intensity scales.

Tsunamis throughout History:
Japan and the Pacific Ocean may have the longest recorded history of tsunamis, but they are an often underestimated hazard in the Mediterranean Sea region and Europe in general. In his History of the Peloponnesian War (426 BCE), Greek historian Thucydides offered what could be considered the first recorded speculation about the causes of tsunamis – where he argued that earthquakes at sea were the reason for them.

An aerial view of tsunami damage in T?hoku. Credit: US Navy
An aerial view of tsunami damage in Tohoku. Credit: US Navy

After the tsunami of 365 CE devastated Alexandria, Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described the typical sequence of a tsunami. His descriptions included an earthquake and the sudden retreat of the sea, followed by a gigantic wave.

More modern examples include the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami (which was caused by activity in the Azores–Gibraltar Transform Fault); the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes, which caused several ten thousand deaths; and the 1908 Messina earthquake and tsunami – which caused 123,000 deaths in Sicily and Calabria and is considered one of the most deadly natural disasters in modern European history.

But by far, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was the most devastating of its kind in modern times, killing around 230,000 people and laying waste to communities throughout Indonesia, Thailand, and Southern Asia.

In 2010, an earthquake triggered a tsunami which devastated several coastal towns in south-central Chile, damaged the port at Talcahuano and caused 4334 confirmed fatalities. The earthquake also generated a blackout that affected 93 percent of the Chilean population.

In 2011, an earthquake off the Pacific coast of Tohoku led to a tsunami that struck Japan and led to 5,891 deaths, 6,152 injuries, and 2,584 people to be declared missing across twenty prefectures. The tsunami also caused meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex.

Tsunamis are a force of nature, without a doubt. And knowing when, where, and how severely they will strike is intrinsic to ensuring that we can limit the damage they do cause.

Universe Today has articles on about tsunamis and causes of tsunamis.

For more information, try tsunami and causes of tsunamis.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Earth.


Hubble Discovers Water Plumes Erupting from Europa

It’s been known since 2005 that Saturn’s 300-mile-wide moon Enceladus has geysers spewing ice and dust out into orbit from deep troughs that rake across its south pole. Now, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope (after 23 years still going strong) we know of another moon with similar jets: Europa, the ever-enigmatic ice-shelled moon of Jupiter. This makes two places in our Solar System where subsurface oceans could be getting sprayed directly into space — and within easy reach of any passing spacecraft.

(Psst, NASA… hint hint.)

The findings were announced today during the meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

“The discovery that water vapor is ejected near the south pole strengthens Europa’s position as the top candidate for potential habitability,” said lead author Lorenz Roth of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas. “However, we do not know yet if these plumes are connected to subsurface liquid water or not.”

The 125-mile (200-km) -high plumes were discovered with Hubble observations made in December 2012. Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) detected faint ultraviolet light from an aurora at the Europa’s south pole. Europa’s aurora is created as it plows through Jupiter’s intense magnetic field, which causes particles to reach such high speeds that they can split the water molecules in the plume when they hit them. The resulting oxygen and hydrogen ions revealed themselves to Hubble with their specific colors.

Unlike the jets on Enceladus, which contain ice and dust particles, only water has so far been identified in Europa’s plumes. (Source)

Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa's south pole.
Rendering showing the location and size of water vapor plumes coming from Europa’s south pole.

The team suspects that the source of the water is Europa’s long-hypothesized subsurface ocean, which could contain even more water than is found across the entire surface of our planet.

Read more: Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

“If those plumes are connected with the subsurface water ocean we are confident exists under Europa’s crust, then this means that future investigations can directly investigate the chemical makeup of Europa’s potentially habitable environment without drilling through layers of ice,” Roth said. “And that is tremendously exciting.”

One other possible source of the water vapor could be surface ice, heated through friction.

Cassini image of ice geysers on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Cassini image of ice geysers on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)

In addition the Hubble team found that the intensity of Europa’s plumes, like those of Enceladus, varies with the moon’s orbital position around Jupiter. Active jets have been seen only when Europa is farthest from Jupiter. But the researchers could not detect any sign of venting when Europa is closer.

One explanation for the variability is Europa undergoes more tidal flexing as gravitational forces push and pull on the moon, opening vents at larger distances from Jupiter. The vents get narrowed or even seal off entirely when the moon is closest to Jupiter.

Still, the observation of these plumes — as well as their varying intensity — only serves to further support the existence of Europa’s ocean.

“The apparent plume variability supports a key prediction that Europa should tidally flex by a significant amount if it has a subsurface ocean,” said Kurt Retherford, also of SwRI.

(Science buzzkill alert: although exciting, further observations will be needed to confirm these findings. “This is a 4 sigma detection, so a small uncertainly that the signal is just noise in the instruments,” noted Roth.)

“If confirmed, this new observation once again shows the power of the Hubble Space Telescope to explore and opens a new chapter in our search for potentially habitable environments in our solar system.”

– John Grunsfeld, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Science

Read more: Hydrogen Peroxide Could Feed Life on Europa

So. Who’s up for a mission to Europa now? (And unfortunately in this case, Juno doesn’t count.)

“Juno is a spinning spacecraft that will fly close to Jupiter, and won’t be studying Europa,” Kurt Retherford told Universe Today. “The team is looking hard how we can optimize, maybe looking for gases coming off Europa and look at how the plasma interacts with environment, so we really need a dedicated Europa mission.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The findings were published in the Dec. 12 online issue of Science Express.

Sources: Hubble news releases (US and ESA)

Image credits:
Graphic Credit: NASA, ESA, and L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany)
Science Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Roth (Southwest Research Institute and University of Cologne, Germany), J. Saur (University of Cologne, Germany), K. Retherford (Southwest Research Institute), D. Strobel and P. Feldman (Johns Hopkins University), M. McGrath (Marshall Space Flight Center), and F. Nimmo (University of California, Santa Cruz)

Hydrogen Peroxide Could Feed Life on Europa

According to research by NASA astronomers using the next-generation optics of the 10-meter Keck II telescope, Jupiter’s ice-encrusted moon Europa has hydrogen peroxide across much of the surface of its leading hemisphere, a compound that could potentially provide energy for life if it has found its way into the moon’s subsurface ocean.

“Europa has the liquid water and elements, and we think that compounds like peroxide might be an important part of the energy requirement,” said JPL scientist Kevin Hand, the paper’s lead author. “The availability of oxidants like peroxide on Earth was a critical part of the rise of complex, multicellular life.”

The paper, co-authored by Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, analyzed data in the near-infrared range of light from Europa using the Keck II Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, over four nights in September 2011. The highest concentration of peroxide found was on the side of Europa that always leads in its orbit around Jupiter, with a peroxide abundance of 0.12 percent relative to water. (For perspective, this is roughly 20 times more diluted than the hydrogen peroxide mixture available at drug stores.) The concentration of peroxide in Europa’s ice then drops off to nearly zero on the hemisphere of Europa that faces backward in its orbit.

Hydrogen peroxide was first detected on Europa by NASA’s Galileo mission, which explored the Jupiter system from 1995 to 2003, but Galileo observations were of a limited region. The new Keck data show that peroxide is widespread across much of the surface of Europa, and the highest concentrations are reached in regions where Europa’s ice is nearly pure water with very little sulfur contamination.

This color composite view combines violet, green, and infrared images of Europa acquired by Galileo in 1997 for a view of the moon in natural color (left) and in enhanced color (right). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
This color composite view combines violet, green, and infrared images of Europa acquired by Galileo in 1997 for a view of the moon in natural color (left) and in enhanced color (right). Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The peroxide is created by the intense radiation processing of Europa’s surface ice that comes from the moon’s location within Jupiter’s strong magnetic field.

“The Galileo measurements gave us tantalizing hints of what might be happening all over the surface of Europa, and we’ve now been able to quantify that with our Keck telescope observations,” Brown said. “What we still don’t know is how the surface and the ocean mix, which would provide a mechanism for any life to use the peroxide.”

Read more: Evidence for a Deep Ocean on Europa Might Be Found on its Surface

The scientists think hydrogen peroxide is an important factor for the habitability of the global liquid water ocean under Europa’s icy crust because hydrogen peroxide decays to oxygen when mixed into liquid water. “At Europa, abundant compounds like peroxide could help to satisfy the chemical energy requirement needed for life within the ocean, if the peroxide is mixed into the ocean,” said Hand.

(Source: NASA)

What’s notable to add, on March 26, 2013, the U.S. President signed a bill that would increase the budget for NASA’s planetary science program as well as provide $75 million for the exploration of Europa. Exactly how the funds will be used isn’t clear — perhaps for components on the proposed Europa Clipper mission? —  but it’s a step in the right direction for learning more about this increasingly intriguing world. Read more on SETI’s Destination: Europa blog.

Enceladus’ Jets Reach All the Way to its Sea

Thanks to the Cassini mission we’ve known about the jets of icy brine spraying from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus for about 8 years now, but this week it was revealed at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference outside Houston, Texas that Enceladus’ jets very likely reach all the way down to the sea — a salty subsurface sea of liquid water that’s thought to lie beneath nearly 10 kilometers of ice.

Enceladus’ jets were first observed by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005. The jets constantly spray fine particles of ice into space which enter orbit around Saturn, creating the hazy, diffuse E ring in which Enceladus resides.

Emanating from deep fissures nicknamed “tiger stripes” that gouge the 512-km (318-mile) -wide moon’s south pole the icy jets — and the stripes — have been repeatedly investigated by Cassini, which has discovered that not only do the ice particles contain salts and organic compounds but also that the stripes are surprisingly warm, measuring at 180 Kelvin (minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit) — over twice as warm as most other regions of the moon.

Read more: Enceladus’ Salty Surprise

Where the jets are getting their supply of liquid water has been a question scientists have puzzled over for years. Is friction caused by tidal stresses heating the insides of the stripes, which melts the ice and shoots it upwards? Or do the fissures actually extend all the way down through Enceladus’ crust to a subsurface ocean of liquid water, and through tidal pressure pull vapor and ice up to the surface?

"Baghdad Sulcus," one of many tiger stripe fissures on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)
“Baghdad Sulcus,” one of many tiger stripe fissures on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Researchers are now confident that the latter is the case.

In a presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference titled “How the Jets, Heat and Tidal Stresses across the South Polar Terrain of Enceladus Are Related” (see the PDF here) Cassini scientists note that the amount of heating due to tidal stress seen along Enceladus’ tiger stripes isn’t nearly enough to cause the full spectrum of heating observed, and the “hot spots” that have been seen don’t correlate with the type of heating caused by shear friction.

Instead, the researchers believe that heat energy is being carried upwards along with the pressurized water vapor from the subsurface sea, warming the areas around individual vents as well as serving to keep their channels open.

With 98 individual jets observed so far on Enceladus’ south polar terrain and surface heating corresponding to each one, this scenario, for lack of a better term… seems legit.

What this means is that not only does a moon of Saturn have a considerable subsurface ocean of liquid water with a heat source and Earthlike salinity (and also a bit of fizz) but also that it’s spraying that ocean, that potentially habitable environment, out into local space where it can be studied relatively easily — making Enceladus a very intriguing target for future exploration.

“To touch the jets of Enceladus is to touch the most accessible salty, organic-rich, extraterrestrial body of water and, hence, habitable zone, in our solar system.”

– Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco et al.

Enceladus is actively spraying its habitable zone out into space (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Enceladus is actively spraying its habitable zone out into space (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Research notes via C. Porco, D. DiNino, F. Nimmo, CICLOPS, Space Science Institute at Boulder, CO, and Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, CA.

Top image: color-composite of Enceladus made from raw Cassini images acquired in 2010. The moon is lit by reflected light from Saturn while the jets are backlit by the Sun. 

An Enormous Arctic Spiral

Looking south across the southern tip of Greenland, this satellite image shows an enormous cloud vortex spiraling over the northern Atlantic ocean on January 26, 2013. An example of the powerful convection currents in the upper latitudes, these polar low cyclones are created when the motion of cold air is energized by the warmer ocean water beneath.

Sometimes referred to as Arctic cyclones, these spiraling storms can bring gale-force winds and heavy snowfall over a wide area of ocean during their 12- to 36-hour lifespans. Hurricane-type storms don’t only form in the tropics!

This image was captured by the MODIS instrument on NASA’s Aqua satellite from its polar orbit 705 km (438 miles) above the Earth. The view has been rotated so south is up; the southernmost tip of Greenland can be seen at lower right. Click for an impressive high-resolution view.

Image via EOSNAP/Chelys

Titan’s Gravity Indicates a Thicker, Uneven Icy Crust

Color composite of Titan and Dione made from Cassini images acquired in May 2011. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)

It’s long been speculated that Saturn’s moon Titan may be harboring a global subsurface ocean below an icy crust, based on measurements of its rotation and orbit by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Titan exhibits a density and shape that indicates a pliable liquid internal layer — an underground ocean — possibly composed of water mixed with ammonia, a combination that would help explain the consistent amount of methane found in its thick atmosphere.

Now, further analysis of Cassini gravity measurements by a Stanford University team has shown that Titan’s ice layer is thicker and less uniform than originally estimated, indicating a more complex internal structure — and a stronger external influences for its heat.

Titan’s liquid subsurface ocean was previously estimated to be in the neighborhood of 100 km (62 miles) thick, sandwiched between a rocky core below and an icy shell above. This was based on the behavior of Titan in its orbit — or, more precisely, how Titan’s shape changes along the course of its orbit, as measured by Cassini’s radar instrument.

Because Titan’s 16-day orbit is not perfectly circular the moon experiences a stronger gravitational pull from Saturn at certain points than at others. As a result it’s flattened at the poles and constantly changing shape slightly — an effect called tidal flexing. Along with the decay of radioactive materials in its core, this flexing generates the internal heat that helps keep a subsurface ocean liquid.

A team of researchers from Stanford University, led by Howard Zebker, professor of geophysics and electrical engineering, used recent Cassini measurements of Titan’s topography and gravity to determine that the icy layer between the moon’s surface and ocean is up to twice as thick as previously thought — and it’s considerably thicker at the equator than at the poles.

“The picture of Titan that we get has an icy, rocky core with a radius of a little over 2,000 kilometers, an ocean somewhere in the range of 225 to 300 kilometers thick and an ice layer that is 200 kilometers thick,” said Zebker.

Different thicknesses of Titan’s ice layer would mean that there’s less heat being generated internally by the decay of radioactive materials in Titan’s core, because that type of heat would be more or less globally uniform. Instead, tidal flexing caused by the gravitational interactions with Saturn and neighboring smaller moons must play a stronger role in heating Titan’s insides.

Read more: Titan’s Tides Suggest a Subsurface Sea

With Cassini’s new measurements of Titan’s gravity, Zebker and his team calculated that the icy layer below Titan’s flattened poles is 3,000 meters (about 1.8 miles) thinner than average, while at the equator it’s 3,000 meters thicker than average. Combined with the moon’s surface features, this makes the average global thickness of the ice layer to be more like 200 km, not 100.

Heat generated by tidal flexing — which is more strongly felt at the poles — is thought to be the cause of the thinner ice there. Thinner ice would mean there’s more liquid water beneath the poles, which is denser and thus would exert a stronger gravitational pull… exactly what’s been found in Cassini’s measurements.

The findings were announced Tuesday, Dec. 4 at the AGU convention in San Francisco. Read more on the Stanford University news page.

Is Triton Hiding an Underground Ocean?

Voyager 2 mosaic of Neptune’s largest moon, Triton (NASA)

At 1,680 miles (2,700 km) across, the frigid and wrinkled Triton is Neptune’s largest moon and the seventh largest in the Solar System. It orbits the planet backwards – that is, in the opposite direction that Neptune rotates – and is the only large moon to do so, leading astronomers to believe that Triton is actually a captured Kuiper Belt Object that fell into orbit around Neptune at some point in our solar system’s nearly 4.7-billion-year history.

Briefly visited by Voyager 2 in late August 1989, Triton was found to have a curiously mottled and rather reflective surface nearly half-covered with a bumpy “cantaloupe terrain” and a crust made up of mostly water ice, wrapped around a dense core of metallic rock. But researchers from the University of Maryland are suggesting that between the ice and rock may lie a hidden ocean of water, kept liquid despite estimated temperatures of  -97°C (-143°F), making Triton yet another moon that could have a subsurface sea.

How could such a chilly world maintain an ocean of liquid water for any length of time? For one thing, the presence of ammonia inside Triton would help to significantly lower the freezing point of water, making for a very cold — not to mention nasty-tasting — subsurface ocean that refrains from freezing solid.

In addition to this, Triton may have a source of internal heat — if not several. When Triton was first captured by Neptune’s gravity its orbit would have initially been highly elliptical, subjecting the new moon to intense tidal flexing that would have generated quite a bit of heat due to friction (not unlike what happens on Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io.) Although over time Triton’s orbit has become very nearly circular around Neptune due to the energy loss caused by such tidal forces, the heat could have been enough to melt a considerable amount of water ice trapped beneath Triton’s crust.

Related: Titan’s Tides Suggest a Subsurface Sea

Another possible source of heat is the decay of radioactive isotopes, an ongoing process which can heat a planet internally for billions of years. Although not alone enough to defrost an entire ocean, combine this radiogenic heating with tidal heating and Triton could very well have enough warmth to harbor a thin, ammonia-rich ocean beneath an insulating “blanket” of frozen crust for a very long time — although eventually it too will cool and freeze solid like the rest of the moon. Whether this has already happened or still has yet to happen remains to be seen, as several unknowns are still part of the equation.

“I think it is extremely likely that a subsurface ammonia-rich ocean exists in Triton,” said Saswata Hier-Majumder at the University of Maryland’s Department of Geology, whose team’s paper was recently published in the August edition of the journal Icarus. “[Yet] there are a number of uncertainties in our knowledge of Triton’s interior and past which makes it difficult to predict with absolute certainty.”

Still, any promise of liquid water existing elsewhere in large amounts should make us take notice, as it’s within such environments that scientists believe lie our best chances of locating any extraterrestrial life. Even in the farthest reaches of the Solar System, from the planets to their moons, into the Kuiper Belt and even beyond, if there’s heat, liquid water and the right elements — all of which seem to be popping up in the most surprising of places — the stage can be set for life to take hold.

Read more about this here on Astrobiology.net.

Inset image: Voyager 2 portrait of Neptune and Triton taken on August 28, 1989. (NASA)

Titan’s Tides Suggest a Subsurface Sea

Saturn’s hazy Titan is now on the short list of moons that likely harbor a subsurface ocean of water, based on new findings from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

As Titan travels around Saturn during its 16-day elliptical orbits, it gets rhythmically squeezed by the gravitational pull of the giant planet — an effect known as tidal flexing (see video below.) If the moon were mostly composed of rock, the flexing would be in the neighborhood of around 3 feet (1 meter.) But based on measurements taken by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, Titan exhibits much more intense flexing — ten times more, in fact, as much as 30 feet (10 meters) — indicating that it’s not entirely solid at all.

Instead, Cassini scientists estimate that there’s a moon-wide ocean of liquid water beneath the frozen crust of Titan, possibly sandwiched between layers of ice or rock.

“Short of being able to drill on Titan’s surface, the gravity measurements provide the best data we have of Titan’s internal structure.”

– Sami Asmar, Cassini team member at JPL

“Cassini’s detection of large tides on Titan leads to the almost inescapable conclusion that there is a hidden ocean at depth,” said Luciano Iess, the paper’s lead author and a Cassini team member at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. “The search for water is an important goal in solar system exploration, and now we’ve spotted another place where it is abundant.”

Although liquid water is a necessity for the development of life, the presence of it alone does not guarantee that alien organisms are swimming around in a Titanic underground ocean. It’s thought that water must be in contact with rock in order to create the necessary building blocks of life, and as yet it’s not known what situations may exist around Titan’s inner sea. But the presence of such an ocean — possibly containing trace amounts of ammonia — would help explain how methane gets replenished into the moon’s thick atmosphere.

“The presence of a liquid water layer in Titan is important because we want to understand how methane is stored in Titan’s interior and how it may outgas to the surface,” said Jonathan Lunine, a Cassini team member at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “This is important because everything that is unique about Titan derives from the presence of abundant methane, yet the methane in the atmosphere is unstable and will be destroyed on geologically short timescales.”

The team’s paper appears in today’s edition of the journal Science. Read more on the Cassini mission site here.

Top image: artist’s concept showing a possible scenario for the internal structure of Titan. (A. Tavani). Side image: An RGB-composite color image of Titan and Dione in front of Saturn’s face and rings, made from Cassini images acquired on May 21, 2011. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.)

There’s a Hole in the Sky!


Well, not the sky exactly, but definitely in the clouds!

This image, acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 5, shows an enormous oval hole in the clouds above the southern Pacific Ocean, approximately 500 miles (800 km) off the southwestern coast of Tasmania. The hole itself is several hundred miles across, and is the result of high pressure air in the upper atmosphere.

According to Rob Gutro of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, “This is a good visible example of how upper-level atmospheric features affect the lower atmosphere, because the cloud hole is right under the center of a strong area of high pressure. High pressure forces air down to the surface blocking cloud formation. In addition, the altocumulus clouds are rotating counter-clockwise around the hole, which in the southern hemisphere indicates high pressure.”

The northwestern tip of Tasmania and King Island can be seen in the upper right of the image.

The Aqua mission is a part of the NASA-centered international Earth Observing System (EOS). Launched on May 4, 2002, Aqua has six Earth-observing instruments on board, collecting a variety of global data sets about the Earth’s water cycle. Read more about Aqua here.