NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Finds Methane Sea On Titan

Posted: Apr 27 2016, 9:55am CDT | by , Updated: Apr 27 2016, 10:58pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News


NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Finds Methane Sea on Titan
Credits: NASA/JPL/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho

New research confirms that one of the largest seas on Saturn's moon Titan is filled with liquid methane.

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is different from all the moons found in the solar system simply because it is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere, making it look like a planet such as Earth rather than a moon.

The atmosphere of both Earth and Titan are quite similar to each other as they are rich in nitrogen. However, unlike Earth, Titan has very little oxygen in its atmosphere. It has been long speculated that it contains gases like methane and ethane in its surface in the form of liquid. When Cassini spacecraft arrived in Saturn’s system, it found that Titan is covered in seas and lakes of liquid hydrocarbons. The liquid reservoirs stretch more than 620,000 miles across Titan’ surface and cover almost 2% of the total surface.

There are three large seas close to North Pole surrounded by dozens of smaller lakes. When researchers used Cassini radar instrument, that found that one of those seas are filled with pure methane. Ligeia Mare is the second largest reservoir of liquid on Titan after Kraken Mare and before the latest research; it was believed that the sea is made up of ethane. Cassini instrument is the first one to show that Ligeia Mare is composed of pure methane.

“Before Cassini, we expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly made up of ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart. Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane.” Lead researcher Alice Le Gall, a Cassini radar team member at the French research laboratory LATMOS said in a statement.

There could be several explanations for the abundance of methane in Ligeia Mare such as fresh methane rainfall is filling it up again and again or there could be something taking away ethane from the sea. However, further research is needed to draw a firm conclusion.

For the study, researchers used the data collected from Cassini instrument while it made several dives into the surface of Titan between 2007 and 2015. Researchers have also found that the depth of the sea is 525 feet and the shoreline around Ligeia Mare contains pores which are filled with liquid hydrocarbons. The temperature of the sea and the shore is not too much different. It warms up and cools down like the sea itself.

Steve Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California says. “It's a marvelous feat of exploration that we're doing extraterrestrial oceanography on an alien moon. Titan just won't stop surprising us.”



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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.




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