Hydrocarbon Lakes On Titan Occasionally Erupt With Nitrogen Bubbles

Posted: Mar 18 2017, 12:58pm CDT | by , Updated: Mar 18 2017, 1:07pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 

Hydrocarbon Lakes on Titan Occasionally Erupt with Nitrogen Bubbles
A combination of mages showing the lakes and seas of Saturn's moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
 

By reconstructing icy conditions of Saturn's moon Titan, researchers showed that its lakes may fizz with nitrogen

Over the past decade, NASA’s Cassini mission has provided us with details of complex chemical activity on the surface of Titan and showed that the Saturn’s largest moon has lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane near its poles, replenished by rain from hydrocarbon clouds, making it the only other place in solar system known to have Earth-like atmosphere and cycle of flowing liquid.

Now a new study suggests that these hydrocarbon lakes and seas of Titan might occasionally erupt with bubbles of nitrogen. 

To arrive at the conclusion, researchers reconstructed the conditions on Titan here on Earth. They demonstrated that when nitrogen gets dissolve in extremely cold liquid methane, it results in lots of nitrogen bubbles - like the fizz that produced when opening a bottle of carbonated soda.

“Our experiments showed that when methane-rich liquids mix with ethane-rich ones -- for example from a heavy rain, or when runoff from a methane river mixes into an ethane-rich lake -- the nitrogen is less able to stay in solution.” Michael Malaska of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the study said in a statement.

The release of nitrogen from the patches of lakes depends on changes in temperature, air pressure or composition. For instance, nitrogen bubbles can occur when methane seas warm slightly during the changing seasons on Titan.

The findings may also solve the mystery of so-called "magic islands” on Titan that have been detected by another team of Cassini mission last year. During several flybys, Cassini's radar has revealed small geological features on the seas that appeared and disappeared frequently. At the time, researchers could not understand the phenomenon but they put forward various potential explanations for what could be creating these seemingly unusual features, including the notion of bubbles. However, it was not until now they were able to understand the mechanism that could be forming such bubbles. 

"Thanks to this work on nitrogen's solubility, we're now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we'd expected. “Jason Hofgartner, who serves as a co-investigator on Cassini's radar team and one of the authors of that study, said.

NASA researchers are planning to study these dramatic patches of nitrogen bubbles further during their upcoming close encounter with Titan. On April 22, Cassini spacecraft will deploy its radar beam over Titan's northern seas one final time. If the island-like features will be present during this close flyby, they will help researchers to better understand the process and to identify its individual characteristics.  

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