Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Methane-filled canyons line Titan's surface, study finds

11.08.2016

New research provides direct evidence of deep canyons carved by flowing liquid methane on Saturn's largest moon

Liquid methane-filled canyons hundreds of meters deep with walls as steep as ski slopes etch the surface of Titan, researchers report in a new study. The new findings provide the first direct evidence of these features on Saturn's largest moon, and could give scientists insights into Titan's origins and similar geologic processes on Earth, according to the study's authors.


A view of Titan's northern pole reveals many hydrocarbon lakes and seas. Titan is the only other celestial body, in addition to Earth, where erosion actively etches its surface.

Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, ASI, and USGS

New Cassini radar observations of Titan's north pole depict cavernous gorges a little less than a kilome-ter (less than half a mile) wide with walls up to 570 meters (1870 feet) tall -- about 30 meters (98 feet) higher than New York's Freedom Tower. The eight canyons branch off from Vid Flumina, a more than 400-kilometer (249-mile) long river flowing into Titan's second-largest sea, Ligeia Mare. The new data confirm the canyons are filled with flowing methane -- a feature researchers had suspected but not directly observed, according to the study's authors.

The new findings suggest the canyons were likely carved by liquid methane draining into Vid Flumina, a process similar to the carving of river gorges on Earth, according to the study's authors. The new re-search could help scientists better understand these geological processes, they said.

"These are processes we need to totally understand because they can shed deeper light on our own planet," said Valerio Poggiali, a planetary scientist at the La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, and lead author of the new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft, launched in 1997, has granted scientists their first up-close look at Saturn, its rings and moons. Cassini's observations of Titan -- with its many Earth-like features -- have given sci-entists a glimpse of what our planet might have been like millions of years ago, according to NASA.

Scientists first observed Titan's hydrocarbon seas in 2006 during one of Cassini's early flybys. Six years later the spacecraft spied Vid Flumina and its branching channels. Researchers suspected those chan-nels, some of which appeared canyon-like, were filled with flowing methane. Other clues like icy peb-bles rounded by river-flow affirmed their suspicions, but they lacked direct evidence the channels were liquid-filled - until now.

"What we didn't know was whether some channels still contained liquids, i.e., whether these rivers of methane were still flowing," said Rosaly Lopes, a planetary geologist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Labora-tory in Pasadena, California, who is also mapping Titan's surface but was not connected to the study. "[Poggiali's] work is what nailed that."

Methane rivers and seas

The researchers used Cassini's instruments to bounce radio signals off Titan's surface. The returned signals defined the moon's surface features, allowing the researchers to discern rocky outcrops from smooth liquid.

The signals show the canyons' walls rise at least as sharply as 40 degrees. Earth shares a similar slope in one of its most dangerous ski runs: Corbet's Coulier in Wyoming. On Earth, skiers plunge down the lofty mountain and glide over snow, but a skier on Titan would tumble hundreds of meters down the canyon walls and splash into a methane river. Although the images showed the canyons were filled with liquid methane, they could not measure the depth of the liquid, which could run shallow or deep, according to the new study.

The study's authors draw comparisons between Titan's canyons, and Arizona and Utah's Lake Powell and the Nile River gorge. Both feature canyons and valleys etched by erosion from flowing liquid. The deep cuts in Titan's landscape indicate the process that created them occurred over multiple extended periods, though the age of that process remains uncertain. They could have been created by uplift of the terrain or changes in sea level, or both, according to the study's authors.

Titan is the only planetary body in our solar system, other than Earth, to have a surface actively eroding on a large scale, according to Lopes.

"We have seen some canyons elsewhere, such as Vallis Marineris on Mars," Lopes said. "However, on Titan, this study shows evidence that some canyons are still filled with liquid and presumably in the process of carving canyons."

Studying the geologic processes on Titan can help researchers tease apart the moon's origins and con-ditions on early Earth. Titan allows scientists to see how these processes change under varying condi-tions, like changes in temperature, according to Lopes.

"On Earth we can't vary the conditions like surface temperature and atmospheric density to see how geologic processes would behave," Lopes said. But by turning to Titan, scientists can see how familiar processes could change when those conditions are altered, she added.

"Although the term is overused, Titan is really a 'natural laboratory' for understanding geological pro-cesses," Lopes said.

Lopes said many more small canyons may line Titan's surface, possibly hidden just below the resolu-tion of Cassini's instruments. Future missions could reveal those and other features, which may fur-ther color our understanding of Titan's origins, she said.

###

The American Geophysical Union is dedicated to advancing the Earth and space sciences for the benefit of humanity through its scholarly publications, conferences, and outreach programs. AGU is a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 60,000 members in 139 countries. Join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and our other social media channels.

Notes for Journalists

This research article will be open access for 30 days from the date of publication. A PDF copy of the article can be downloaded at the following link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2016GL069679/abstract

After 30 days, journalists and public information officers (PIOs) of educational and scientific institutions who have registered with AGU can download a PDF copy of the article from the same link.

Journalists and PIOs may also order a copy of the final paper by emailing a request to Brendan Bane at bbane@agu.org.

Please provide your name, the name of your publication, and your phone number.

Neither the paper nor this press release is under embargo.

Title: "Liquid-filled Canyons on Titan"

Authors: Valerio Poggiali, Roberto Seu: Dipartimento di Ingegneria dell-Informazione, Elettronica e Teleco-municazioni (DIET), Sapienza Università di Roma, 00185 Roma, Italy.;

Alexander G. Hayes, Jason D. Hofgartner, Marco Mastrogiuseppe, Samuel P. D. Birch: Cornell Center for Astrophysical Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, 14850 New York, U.S.A.;

Cyril Grima: Institute for Geophysics, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, U.S.A.;

Ralph Lorenz: Applied Physics Laboratory, Johns Hopkins University, Laurel, Maryland, U.S.A.

Contact Information for the Authors: Valerio Poggiali: (office) +39 064 458 5469, (home) +39 064 549 1279, (cell) +39 339 825 8595, valerio.poggiali@uniroma1.it

Alex Hayes: hayes@astro.cornell.edu

Rosaly Lopes: rosaly.m.lopes-gautier@jpl.nasa.gov

AGU Contact:
Brendan Bane
+1 (202) 777-7409
bbane@agu.org

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Contact:
Preston Dyches
+1 (818) 354 -7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Media Contact

Brendan Bane
bbane@agu.org
202-777-7409

 @theagu

http://www.agu.org 

Brendan Bane | EurekAlert!

Further reports about: American Geophysical Union Earth NASA Titan canyons

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Monitoring lava lake levels in Congo volcano
16.05.2018 | Seismological Society of America

nachricht Ice stream draining Greenland Ice Sheet sensitive to changes over past 45,000 years
14.05.2018 | Oregon State University

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

Im Focus: Dozens of binaries from Milky Way's globular clusters could be detectable by LISA

Next-generation gravitational wave detector in space will complement LIGO on Earth

The historic first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes far outside our galaxy opened a new window to understanding the universe. A...

Im Focus: Entangled atoms shine in unison

A team led by Austrian experimental physicist Rainer Blatt has succeeded in characterizing the quantum entanglement of two spatially separated atoms by observing their light emission. This fundamental demonstration could lead to the development of highly sensitive optical gradiometers for the precise measurement of the gravitational field or the earth's magnetic field.

The age of quantum technology has long been heralded. Decades of research into the quantum world have led to the development of methods that make it possible...

Im Focus: Computer-Designed Customized Regenerative Heart Valves

Cardiovascular tissue engineering aims to treat heart disease with prostheses that grow and regenerate. Now, researchers from the University of Zurich, the Technical University Eindhoven and the Charité Berlin have successfully implanted regenerative heart valves, designed with the aid of computer simulations, into sheep for the first time.

Producing living tissue or organs based on human cells is one of the main research fields in regenerative medicine. Tissue engineering, which involves growing...

Im Focus: Light-induced superconductivity under high pressure

A team of scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg investigated optically-induced superconductivity in the alkali-doped fulleride K3C60under high external pressures. This study allowed, on one hand, to uniquely assess the nature of the transient state as a superconducting phase. In addition, it unveiled the possibility to induce superconductivity in K3C60 at temperatures far above the -170 degrees Celsius hypothesized previously, and rather all the way to room temperature. The paper by Cantaluppi et al has been published in Nature Physics.

Unlike ordinary metals, superconductors have the unique capability of transporting electrical currents without any loss. Nowadays, their technological...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

Unique scope of UV LED technologies and applications presented in Berlin: ICULTA-2018

12.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Supersonic waves may help electronics beat the heat

18.05.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Keeping a Close Eye on Ice Loss

18.05.2018 | Information Technology

CrowdWater: An App for Flood Research

18.05.2018 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>