Cassini-Huygens supplied new evidence about why Titan has an atmosphere, making it unique among all solar system moons, a University of Arizona planetary scientist says.
This mosaic of Titans surface was made from 16 images. The individual images have been specially processed to remove effects of Titans hazy atmosphere and to improve visibility of the surface near the terminator (the boundary between day and night). (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute) Titan is one of only four solar system terrestrial bodies that has an atmosphere. That mostly nitrogen atmosphere probably came from liquid ammonia on Titan, according to UAs Jonathan Lunine.
Scientists can infer from Cassini-Huygens results that Titan has ammonia, said Jonathan I. Lunine, an interdisciplinary scientist for the European Space Agencys Huygens probe that landed on Titan last month. "I think whats clear from the data is that Titan has accreted or acquired significant amounts of ammonia, as well as water," Lunine said. "If ammonia is present, it may be responsible for resurfacing significant parts of Titan." He predicts that Cassini instruments will find that Titan has a liquid ammonia-and-water layer beneath its hard, water-ice surface. Cassini will see -- Cassini radar has likely already seen -- places where liquid ammonia-and-water slurry erupted from extremely cold volcanoes and flowed across Titans landscape. Ammonia in the thick mixture released in this way, called "cryovolcanism," could be the source of molecular nitrogen, the major gas in Titans atmosphere.
Lunine and five other Cassini scientists reported on the latest results from the Cassini-Huygens mission at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Washington, D.C. today (Feb. 19). Cassini radar imaged a feature that resembles a basaltic flow on Earth when it made its first close pass by Titan in October 2004. Scientists believe that Titan has a rock core, surrounded by an overlying layer of rock-hard water ice. Ammonia in Titans volcanic fluid would lower the freezing point of water, lower the fluids density so it would be about as buoyant as water ice, and increase viscosity to about that of basalt, Lunine said. "The feature seen in the radar data suggests ammonia is at work on Titan in cryovolcanism."
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