Lakes on Titan Might Have Exotic Crystals Encrusted Around Their Shores

This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon's thick, hazy atmosphere. Image: By NASA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14602, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44822294

Titan is a mysterious, strange place for human eyes. It’s a frigid world, with seas of liquid hydrocarbons, and a structure made up of layers of water, different kinds of ice, and a core of hydrous silicates. It may even have cryovolcanoes. Adding to the odd nature of Saturn’s largest moon is the presence of exotic crystals on the shores of its hydrocarbon lakes.

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Methane-Filled Lakes on Titan are “Surprisingly Deep”

A near-infrared mosaic image of Saturn's moon Titan shows the sun reflecting and glinting off of Titan's northern polar seas. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

The Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons wrapped up in 2017, when the spacecraft was sent plunging into the gas giant to meet its end. But there’s still a lot of data from the mission to keep scientists busy. A team of scientists working with Cassini data have made a surprising discovery: Titan’s methane-filled lakes are much deeper, and weirder, than expected.

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Titan’s Thick Clouds Obscure our View, but Cassini Took these Images in Infrared, Showing the Moon’s Surface Features

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Saturn’s moon Titan is a very strange place. It’s surrounded by a dense, opaque atmosphere, the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere to speak of. It has lakes of liquid methane on its surface, maybe some cryovolcanoes, and some scientists speculate that it could support a form of life. Very weird life.

But we still don’t know a lot about it, because we haven’t really seen much of the surface. Until now.

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Titan First-Ever Detected Dust Storms Prove the Moon is More Earth-like than Ever

Ever since the Cassini orbiter entered the Saturn system in July of 2004, scientists and the general public have been treated to a steady stream of data about this ringed giant and its many fascinating moons. In particular, a great deal of attention was focused on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, which has many surprising Earth-like characteristics.

These include its nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the presence of liquid bodies on its surface, a dynamic climate, organic molecules, and active prebiotic chemistry. And in the latest revelation to come from the Cassini orbiter, it appears that Titan also experiences periodic dust storms. This puts it in a class that has so far been reserved for only Earth and Mars.

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Titan Looks Cool in Infrared

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on September 15th, 2017, when it crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, thus preventing any possible contamination of the system’s moons. Nevertheless, the wealth of data the probe collected during the thirteen years it spent orbiting Saturn (of the gas giant, its rings, and its many moons) continues to be analyzed by scientists – with amazing results!

Case in point, the Cassini team recently released a series of colorful images that show what Titan looks like in infrared. The images were constructing using 13 years of data that was accumulated by the spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. These images represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far.

Infrared images provide a unique opportunity when studying Titan, which is difficult to observe in the visible spectrum because of its dense and hazy atmosphere. This is primarily the result of small particles called aerosols in Titan’s upper atmosphere, which strongly scatter visible light. However, where the scattering and absorption of light is much weaker, this allows for infrared “windows” that make it possible to catch glimpses of Titan’s surface.

Comparison between how Titan appears in visible light (center), and in infrared. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona

It is because of this that the VIMS was so valuable, allowing scientists to provide clear images of Titan’s surface. This latest collection of images are especially unique because of the smoothness and clarity they offer. In previous infrared images captured by the Cassini spacecraft of Titan (see below), there were great variations in imaging resolution and lighting conditions, which resulted in obvious seams between different areas of the surface.

This is due to the fact that the VIMS obtained data over many different flybys with different observing geometries and atmospheric conditions. As a result, very prominent seams appear in mosaic images that are quite difficult to remove. But, through laborious and detailed analyses of the data, along with time consuming hand processing of the mosaics, Cassini’s imaging team was able to mostly remove the seams.

The process used to reduce the prominence of seams is known as the “band-ratio” technique. This process involves combining three color channels (red, green and blue), using a ratio between the brightness of Titan’s surface at two different wavelengths. The technique also emphasizes subtle spectral variations in the materials on Titan’s surface, as evidenced by the bright patches of brown, blue and purple (which may be evidence of different compositions).

The three mosaics shown here were composed with data from Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) taken during the three flybys of Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In addition to offering the clearest and most-seamless glimpse of Titan yet, these unique images also highlight the moon’s complex geography and composition. They also showcase the power of the VIMS instrument, which has paved the way for future infrared instruments that could capture images of Titan at much higher resolution and reveal features that Cassini was not able to see.

In the coming years, NASA hopes to send additional missions to Titan to explore its surface and methane lakes for signs of biosignatures. An infrared instrument, which can see through Titan’s dense atmosphere, provide high-resolution images of the surface and help determine its composition, will prove very useful in this regard!

Further Reading: NASA

There’s Sand on Titan, Where Does it Come From?

This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon's thick, hazy atmosphere. Image: By NASA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14602, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44822294

Even though the Cassini orbiter ended its mission on of September 15th, 2017, the data it gathered on Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, continues to astound and amaze. During the thirteen years that it spent orbiting Saturn and conducting flybys of its moons, the probe gathered a wealth of data on Titan’s atmosphere, surface, methane lakes, and rich organic environment that scientists continue to pore over.

For instance, there is the matter of the mysterious “sand dunes” on Titan, which appear to be organic in nature and whose structure and origins remain have remained a mystery. To address these mysteries, a team of scientists from John Hopkins University (JHU) and the research company Nanomechanics recently conducted a study of Titan’s dunes and concluded that they likely formed in Titan’s equatorial regions.

Their study, “Where does Titan Sand Come From: Insight from Mechanical Properties of Titan Sand Candidates“, recently appeared online and has been submitted to the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. The study was led by Xinting Yu, a graduate student with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences (EPS) at JHU, and included EPS Assistant Professors Sarah Horst (Yu’s advisor) Chao He, and Patricia McGuiggan, with support provided by Bryan Crawford of Nanomechanics Inc.

To break it down, Titan’s sand dunes were originally spotted by Cassini’s radar instruments in the Shangri-La region near the equator. The images the probe obtained showed long, linear dark streaks that looked like wind-swept dunes similar to those found on Earth. Since their discovery, scientists have theorized that they are comprised of grains of hydrocarbons that have settled on the surface from Titan’s atmosphere.

In the past, scientists have conjectured that they form in the northern regions around Titan’s methane lakes and are distributed to the equatorial region by the moon’s winds. But where these grains actually came from, and how they came to be distributed in these dune-like formations, has remained a mystery. However, as Yu explained to Universe Today via email, that is only part of what makes these dunes mysterious:

“First, nobody expected to see any sand dunes on Titan before the Cassini-Huygens mission, because global circulation models predicted the wind speeds on Titan are too weak to blow the materials to form dunes. However, through Cassini we saw vast linear dune fields that covers almost 30% of the equatorial regions of Titan!

“Second, we are not sure how Titan sands are formed.Dune materials on Titan are completely different from those on Earth. On Earth, dune materials are mainly silicate sand fragments weathered from silicate rocks. While on Titan, dune materials are complex organics formed by photochemistry in the atmosphere, falling to the ground. Studies show that the dune particles are pretty big (at least 100 microns), while the photochemistry formed organic particles are still pretty small near the surface (only around 1 micron). So we are not sure how the small organic particles are transformed into the big sand dune particles (you need a million small organic particles to form one single sand particle!)

“Third, we also don’t know where the organic particles in the atmosphere are processed to become bigger to form the dune particles. Some scientists think these particles can be processed everywhere to form the dune particles, while some other researchers believe their formation need to be involved with Titan’s liquids (methane and ethane), which are currently located only in the polar regions.”

Dunes on Titan seen in Cassini’s radar (top) that are similar to Namibian sand dunes on Earth. The features that appear to be clouds in the top picture are actually topographic features. Credit: NASA

To shed light on this, Yu and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments to simulate materials being transported on both terrestrial and icy bodies. This consisted of using several natural Earth sands, such as silicate beach sand, carbonate sand and white gyspum sand. To simulate the kinds materials found on Titan, they used laboratory-produced tholins, which are molecules of methane that have been subjected to UV radiation.

The production of tholins was specifically conducted to recreate the kinds of organic aerosols and photochemistry conditions that are common on Titan. This was done using the Planetary HAZE Research (PHAZER) experimental system at Johns Hopkins University – for which the Principal Investigator is Sarah Horst. The last step consisted of using a nanoidentification technique (overseen by Bryan Crawford of Nanometrics Inc.) to study the mechanical properties of the simulated sands and tholins.

This consisted of placing the sand simulants and tholins into a wind tunnel to determine their mobility and see if they could be distributed in the same patterns. As Yu explained:

“The motivation behind the study is to try to answer the third mystery. If the dune materials are processed through liquids, which are located in the polar regions of Titan, they need to be strong enough to be transported from the poles to the equatorial regions of Titan, where most of the dunes are located. However, the tholins we produced in the lab are in extremely low amounts: the thickness of the tholin film we produced is only around 1 micron, about 1/10-1/100 of the thickness of human hair. To deal with this, we used a very intriguing and precise nanoscale technique called nanoindentation to perform the measurements. Even though the produced indents and cracks are all in nanometer scales, we can still precisely determine mechanical properties like Young’s modulus (indicator of stiffness), nanoindentation hardness (hardness), and fracture toughness (indicator of brittleness) of the thin film.”

Radar image of sand dunes on Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL–Caltech/ASI/ESA and USGS/ESA

In the end, the team determined that the organic molecules found on Titan are much softer and more brittle when compared to even the softest sands on Earth. Simply put, the tholins they produced did not appear to have the strength to travel the immense distance that lies between Titan’s northern methane lakes and the equatorial region. From this, they concluded that the organic sands on Titan are likely formed near where they are located.

“And their formation may not involve liquids on Titan, since that would require a huge transportation distance of over 2000 kilometers from the Titan’s poles to the equator,” Yu added. “The soft and brittle organic particles would be grinded to dust before they reach the equator. Our study used a completely different method and reinforced some of results inferred from Cassini observations.”

In the end, this study represents a new direction for researchers when it comes to the study of Titan and other bodies in the Solar System. As Yu explained, in the past, researchers were mostly constrained with Cassini data and modelling to answer questions about Titan’s sand dunes. However, Yu and her colleagues were able to use laboratory-produced analogs to address these questions, despite the fact that the Cassini mission is now at an end.

What’s more, this most recent study is sure to be of immense value as scientists continue to pore over Cassini’s data in anticipation of future missions to Titan. These missions aim to study Titan’s sand dunes, methane lakes and rich organic chemistry in more detail. As Yu explained:

“[O]ur results can not only help understand the origin of Titan’s dunes and sands, but also it will provide crucial information for potential future landing missions on Titan, such as Dragonfly (one of two finalists (out of twelve proposals) selected for further concept development by NASA’s New Frontiers program). The material properties of the organics on Titan can actually provide amazing clues to solve some of the mysteries on Titan.

“In a study we published last year in JGR-planets (2017, 122, 2610–2622), we found out that the interparticle forces between tholin particles are much larger than common sand on Earth, which means the organics on Titan are much more cohesive (or stickier) than silicate sands on Earth. This implies that we need a larger wind speed to blow the sand particles on Titan, which could help the modeling researchers to answer the first mystery. It also suggests that Titan sands could be formed by simple coagulation of organic particles in the atmosphere, since they are much easier to stick together. This could help understand the second mystery of Titan’s sand dunes.”

Artist’s concept of the dragonfly being deployed to Titan and commencing its exploration mission. Credit: APL/Michael Carroll

In addition, this study has implications for the study of bodies other than Titan. “We have found organics on many other solar system bodies, especially icy bodies in the outer solar system, such as Pluto, Neptune’s moon Triton, and comet 67P,” said Yu. “And some of the organics are photochemically produced similarly to Titan. And we do found wind blown features (called aeolian features) on those bodies as well, so our results could be applied to these planetary bodies as well.”

In the coming decade, multiple missions are expected to explore the moons of the outer Solar System and reveal things about their rich environments that could help shed light on the origins of life here on Earth. In addition, the James Webb Space Telescope (now expected to be deployed in 2021) will also use its advanced suit of instruments to study the planets of the Solar System in the hopes of address these burning questions.

Further Reading: arXiv

Are There Enough Chemicals on Icy Worlds to Support Life?

For decades, scientists have believed that there could be life beneath the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Since that time, multiple lines of evidence have emerged that suggest that it is not alone. Indeed, within the Solar System, there are many “ocean worlds” that could potentially host life, including Ceres, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, Dione, Triton, and maybe even Pluto.

But what if the elements for life as we know it are not abundant enough on these worlds? In a new study, two researchers from the Harvard Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics (CfA) sought to determine if there could in fact be a scarcity of bioessential elements on ocean worlds. Their conclusions could have wide-ranging implications for the existence of life in the Solar System and beyond, not to mention our ability to study it.

The study, titled “Is extraterrestrial life suppressed on subsurface ocean worlds due to the paucity of bioessential elements?” recently appeared online. The study was led by Manasvi Lingam, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) at Harvard University and the CfA, with the support of Abraham Loeb – the director of the ITC and the Frank B. Baird, Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard.

Artist’s depiction of a watery exoplanet orbiting a distant red dwarf star. Credit: CfA

In previous studies, questions on the habitability of moons and other planets have tended to focus on the existence of water. This has been true when it comes to the study of planets and moons within the Solar System, and especially true when it comes the study of extra-solar planets. When they have found new exoplanets, astronomers have paid close attention to whether or not the planet in question orbits within its star’s habitable zone.

This is key to determining whether or not the planet can support liquid water on its surface. In addition, astronomers have attempted to obtain spectra from around rocky exoplanets to determine if water loss is taking place from its atmosphere, as evidenced by the presence of hydrogen gas. Meanwhile, other studies have attempted to determine the presence of energy sources, since this is also essential to life as we know it.

In contrast, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered how the existence of life on ocean planets could be dependent on the availability of limiting nutrients (LN). For some time, there has been considerable debate as to which nutrients would be essential to extra-terrestrial life, since these elements could vary from place to place and over timescales. As Lingam told Universe Today via email:

“The mostly commonly accepted list of elements necessary for life as we know it comprises of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. In addition, certain trace metals (e.g. iron and molybdenum) may also be valuable for life as we know it, but the list of bioessential trace metals is subject to a higher degree of uncertainty and variability.”

Artist rendering showing an interior cross-section of the crust of Enceladus, which shows how hydrothermal activity may be causing the plumes of water at the moon’s surface. Credits: NASA-GSFC/SVS, NASA/JPL-Caltech/Southwest Research Institute

For their purposes, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb created a model using Earth’s oceans to determine how the sources and sinks – i.e. the factors that add or deplete LN elements into oceans, respectively – could be similar to those on ocean worlds. On Earth, the sources of these nutrients include fluvial (from rivers), atmospheric and glacial sources, with energy being provided by sunlight.

Of these nutrients, they determined that the most important would be phosphorus, and examined how abundant this and other elements could be on ocean worlds, where conditions as vastly different. As Dr. Lingam explained, it is reasonable to assume that on these worlds, the potential existence of life would also come down to a balance between the net inflow (sources) and net outflow (sinks).

“If the sinks are much more dominant than the sources, it could indicate that the elements would be depleted relatively quickly. In other to estimate the magnitudes of the sources and sinks, we drew upon our knowledge of the Earth and coupled it with other basic parameters of these ocean worlds such as the pH of the ocean, the size of the world, etc. known from observations/theoretical models.”

While atmospheric sources would not be available to interior oceans, Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb considered the contribution played by hydrothermal vents. Already, there is abundant evidence that these exist on Europa, Enceladus, and other ocean worlds. They also considered abiotic sources, which consist of minerals leached from rocks by rain on Earth, but would consist of the weathering of rocks by these moons’ interior oceans.

Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Ultimately, what they found was that, unlike water and energy, limiting nutrients might be in limited supply when it comes to ocean worlds in our Solar System:

“We found that, as per the assumptions in our model, phosphorus, which is one of the bioessential elements, is depleted over fast timescales (by geological standards) on ocean worlds whose oceans are neutral or alkaline in nature, and which possess hydrothermal activity (i.e. hydrothermal vent systems at the ocean floor). Hence, our work suggests that life may exist in low concentrations globally in these ocean worlds (or be present only in local patches), and may therefore not be easily detectable.”

This naturally has implications for missions destined for Europa and other moons in the outer Solar System. These include the NASA Europa Clipper mission, which is currently scheduled to launch between 2022 and 2025. Through a series of flybys of Europa, this probe will attempt to measure biomarkers in the plume activity coming from the moon’s surface.

Similar missions have been proposed for Enceladus, and NASA is also considering a “Dragonfly” mission to explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface and methane lakes. However, if Dr. Lingam and Prof. Loeb’s study is correct, then the chances of these missions finding any signs of life on an ocean world in the Solar System are rather slim. Nevertheless, as Lingam indicated, they still believe that such missions should be mounted.

Artist’s concept of a Europa Clipper mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

“Although our model predicts that future space missions to these worlds might have low chances of success in terms of detecting extraterrestrial life, we believe that such missions are still worthy of being pursued,” he said. “This is because they will offer an excellent opportunity to: (i) test and/or falsify the key predictions of our model, and (ii) collect more data and improve our understanding of ocean worlds and their biogeochemical cycles.”

In addition, as Prof. Loeb indicated via email, this study was focused on “life as we know it”. If a mission to these worlds did find sources of extra-terrestrial life, then it would indicate that life can arise from conditions and elements that we are not familiar with. As such, the exploration of Europa and other ocean worlds is not only advisable, but necessary.

“Our paper shows that elements that are essential for the ‘chemistry-of-life-as-we-know-it’, such as phosphorous, are depleted in subsurface oceans,” he said. “As a result, life would be challenging in the oceans suspected to exist under the surface ice of Europa or Enceladus. If future missions confirm the depleted level of phosphorous but nevertheless find life in these oceans, then we would know of a new chemical path for life other than the one on Earth.”

In the end, scientists are forced to take the “low-hanging fruit” approach when it comes to searching for life in the Universe . Until such time that we find life beyond Earth, all of our educated guesses will be based on life as it exists here. I can’t imagine a better reason to get out there and explore the Universe than this!

Further Reading: arXiv