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

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: A Challenging European Research Project to Develop New Tiny Microscopes

The Institute of Semiconductor Technology and the Institute of Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, both members of the Laboratory for Emerging Nanometrology (LENA), at Technische Universität Braunschweig are partners in a new European research project entitled ChipScope, which aims to develop a completely new and extremely small optical microscope capable of observing the interior of living cells in real time. A consortium of 7 partners from 5 countries will tackle this issue with very ambitious objectives during a four-year research program.

To demonstrate the usefulness of this new scientific tool, at the end of the project the developed chip-sized microscope will be used to observe in real-time...

Im Focus: Giant Magnetic Fields in the Universe

Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.

The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.

Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...

Im Focus: Tracing down linear ubiquitination

Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.

Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...

Im Focus: Perovskite edges can be tuned for optoelectronic performance

Layered 2D material improves efficiency for solar cells and LEDs

In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...

Im Focus: Polymer-coated silicon nanosheets as alternative to graphene: A perfect team for nanoelectronics

Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.

Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

International Land Use Symposium ILUS 2017: Call for Abstracts and Registration open

20.03.2017 | Event News

CONNECT 2017: International congress on connective tissue

14.03.2017 | Event News

ICTM Conference: Turbine Construction between Big Data and Additive Manufacturing

07.03.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

NASA laser communications to provide Orion faster connections

30.03.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Reusable carbon nanotubes could be the water filter of the future, says RIT study

30.03.2017 | Studies and Analyses

Unique genome architectures after fertilisation in single-cell embryos

30.03.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>