NASA's Cassini Reveals Lakes of Liquid Methane On Saturn's Moon

Screengrab from a Reuters video suggesting possible life elements on the Saturn moon Titan

Screengrab from a Reuters video suggesting possible life elements on the Saturn moon Titan

On Earth, this happens with water and limestone, but on Titan, it would be liquid methane and the icy organic materials that make up Titan's surface layers.

The moon appears to sustain a hydrology on one side of the northern hemisphere that is completely different from that of the other side.

The prospect of methane-based life on Titan has been postulated before, after NASA found traces of vinyl cyanide in the atmosphere past year.

The researchers found that the hydrologic cycle on Titan is similar to that of Earth's, except that clouds and rain are not made up of water, but rather methane and ethane.

"This was Cassini's last hurrah at Titan, and it really was a feat", Lunine said. On the western side: small lakes. And on the western side-based on new measurements-are small lakes perched atop big hills and plateaus.

Researchers described landforms akin to mesas towering above the nearby landscape, topped with liquid lakes comprised mainly of methane. The scientists suspect the lakes formed when surrounding bedrock chemically dissolved and collapsed, a process that occurs with a certain type of lake on Earth.

Earth has a lot of liquid on its surface, but the same can't be said for many other worlds in our solar system, Titan is the exception, with vast lakes visible from space.

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Radar and infrared data from these northern lakes show that even these lakes undergo long seasonal changes over a period of three decades. "One possibility is that these transient features could have been shallower bodies of liquid that over the course of the season evaporated and infiltrated into the subsurface", she said.

These results and the findings from the Nature Astronomy paper on Titan's deep lakes support the idea that hydrocarbon rain feeds the lakes, which then can evaporate back into the atmosphere or drain into the subsurface, leaving reservoirs of liquid stored below. It did the work with the radar instrument, which sent out radio waves and collected a return signal (or echo) that provided information about the terrain and the liquid bodies' depth and composition, along with two imaging systems that could penetrate the moon's thick atmospheric haze.

The moon's lakes, which were observed by Cassini during its final pass in 2017, are far deeper than anyone thought.

Cassini's last tour of Saturn's moon revealed that some of its northern lakes are 300 feet deep, but small in surface area and perched atop high hills.

A joint initiative of the United States' NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, the Cassini mission ended in September 2017.

However, once the organic molecules get big enough, they eventually fall to Titan's surface and may play a part in the dust storms. Finding smaller northern lakes brimming with methane, though, was a surprise, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

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