Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Caltech scientists explain puzzling lake asymmetry on Titan

30.11.2009
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) suggest that the eccentricity of Saturn's orbit around the sun may be responsible for the unusually uneven distribution of methane and ethane lakes over the northern and southern polar regions of the planet's largest moon, Titan. On Earth, similar "astronomical forcing" of climate drives ice-age cycles.

A paper describing the theory appears in the November 29th advance online edition of Nature Geoscience.

As revealed by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging data taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been surveying Saturn and its moons since 2004, liquid hydrocarbon–filled lakes in Titan's northern high latitudes cover 20 times more area than lakes in the southern high latitudes. There are also significantly more partially filled and now-empty lakes in the north. (In the SAR data, smooth features—like the surfaces of lakes—appear as dark areas, while rougher features—such as the bottom of an empty lake—appear bright.)

Assuming that the asymmetry is not a statistical fluke (which is unlikely because of the large amount of data collected by Cassini), scientists initially considered the idea that "there is something inherently different about the northern polar region versus the south in terms of topography, such that liquid rains, drains, or infiltrates the ground more in one hemisphere," says Oded Aharonson, associate professor of planetary science at Caltech and lead author of the Nature Geoscience paper. However, he notes, there are no substantial known differences between the north and south to support this possibility.

Alternatively, the mechanism may be seasonal. One year on Titan lasts 29.5 Earth years. Every 15 Earth years the seasons reverse, so that it becomes summer in one hemisphere and winter in the other. (Currently, summer has just begun in the northern hemisphere, and winter in the south.) According to the seasonal hypothesis, methane rainfall and evaporation vary in different seasons—recently filling lakes in the north while drying lakes in the south.

The problem with this idea, Aharonson says, is that it explains decreases of about one meter per year in the depths of lakes in the summer hemisphere. But Titan's lakes are a few hundred meters deep on average, and wouldn't drain (or fill) in just 15 years.

In addition, seasonal variation can't account for the disparity between the hemispheres in the number of empty lakes; the northern pole has roughly three times as many dried-up lake basins as the south (and seven times as many partially filled ones).

"How do you move the hole in the ground?" Aharonson asks. "The seasonal mechanism may be responsible for part of the global transport of liquid methane, but it's not the whole story."

A more plausible explanation, say Aharonson and his colleagues, is related to the eccentricity of the orbit of Saturn—and hence of Titan, its satellite—around the sun.

Like Earth and the other planets, Saturn's orbit is not perfectly circular, but is instead somewhat elliptical—or eccentric—and oblique. Because of this, during its southern summer, Titan is about 12 percent closer to the sun than it is during the northern summer. As a result, northern summers are long and subdued while southern summers are short and intense.

Aharonson and his colleagues think these differences in the characteristics of the seasons could somehow affect the relative amounts of precipitation and evaporation of methane in the hemispheres' respective summers.

"We propose that, in this orbital configuration, the difference between evaporation and precipitation is not equal in opposite seasons, which means there is a net transport of methane from south to north," he says. This imbalance would lead to an accumulation of methane—and hence the formation of many more lakes—in the northern hemisphere.

This situation is only true right now, however. Over very long time scales of tens of thousands of years, Saturn's orbital parameters vary, at times causing Titan to be closer to the sun during its northern summer and farther away in southern summers, and producing a reverse in the net transport of methane. This should lead to a buildup of the hydrocarbon—and an abundance of lakes—in the southern hemisphere.

"Like Earth, Titan has tens-of-thousands-of-year variations in climate driven by orbital motions," Aharonson says. On Earth, these variations, known as Milankovitch cycles, are linked to the global redistribution of water in the form of glaciers, and are responsible for ice-age cycles. "On Titan, there are long-term climate cycles in the global movement of methane that make lakes and carve lake basins. In both cases we find a record of the process embedded in the geology," he adds.

"We may have found an example of present-day climate change, analogous to Milankovitch climate cycles on Earth, on another object in the solar system," he says.

The paper, "Titan's Asymmetric Lake Distribution and its Potential Astronomical Evolution," was coauthored by Caltech graduate student Alexander G. Hayes; Jonathan I. Lunine of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory; Ralph D. Lorenz of the Applied Physics Laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University; Michael D. Allison of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies; and Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The work was partially funded by the Cassini Project.

Kathy Svitil | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.caltech.edu
http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~oa/titanlakes.shtml
http://media.caltech.edu

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht GPM sees deadly tornadic storms moving through US Southeast
01.12.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht Cyclic change within magma reservoirs significantly affects the explosivity of volcanic eruptions
30.11.2016 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

Im Focus: Molecules change shape when wet

Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water

In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...

Im Focus: Fraunhofer ISE Develops Highly Compact, High Frequency DC/DC Converter for Aviation

The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

UTSA study describes new minimally invasive device to treat cancer and other illnesses

02.12.2016 | Medical Engineering

Plasma-zapping process could yield trans fat-free soybean oil product

02.12.2016 | Agricultural and Forestry Science

What do Netflix, Google and planetary systems have in common?

02.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>