NASA’s Cassini data shows Titan’s lakes are stranger than we thought

The findings represented further evidence about Titan’s hydrological cycle with liquid hydrocarbons raining down from clouds flowing across its surface and evaporating back into the sky

These findings support the theory that methane rain feeds lakes, which then both evaporate back into the atmosphere as well as seep through the soil, creating vast underground reservoirs of liquid hydrocarbons.

The only planetary body known to have stable liquid on its surface (aside from Earth), Titan's northern hemisphere boasts "surprisingly deep" liquid lakes-stretching more than 300 feet below the surface.

The prospect of methane-based life on Titan has been postulated before, after NASA found traces of vinyl cyanide in the atmosphere previous year. New radar measurements confirmed the lakes are just tens of miles wide but more than 100 meters deep, and they sit on plateaus hundreds of feet above the surrounding landscape. This is comparable to Earth's water cycle.

"It is as if you looked down on the Earth's North Pole and could see that North America had completely different geologic setting for bodies of liquid than Asia does", Lunine said.

"Every time we make discoveries on Titan, Titan becomes more and more mysterious", said Cassini radar scientist Dr. Marco Mastrogiuseppe, of Caltech.

Cassini's inspection revealed large seas with low elevation, islands in the middle, and large canyons on the eastern side, and small lakes of liquid methane at high altitudes, on top of several separate high hills or buttes, on the western end.

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"Adding to the oddities of Titan, with its Earth-like features carved by exotic materials, is the fact that the hydrology on one side of the northern hemisphere is completely different than the that of other side", said Cassini scientist Dr. Jonathan Lunine, Cornell University. The shape and location of the lakes hints strongly that the lakes are similar to karstic lakes on Earth, where liquid eats away at and eventually collapses the bedrock around it. These lakes appear in earlier Cassini data and disappear later on.

Titan, one of over 60 Saturn moons, is the only other body in the solar system to have a liquid cycle like the Earth's water cycle: Methane and ethane rain down and evaporate to form clouds.

The crucial data for this new research was gathered on Cassini's final close flyby of Titan in April 2017.

Radar and infrared data from these northern lakes show that even these lakes undergo long seasonal changes over a period of three decades. On that day, its mission was to look at the moon's smaller lakes, and it did so, in part, by collecting echoes from their surfaces.

A joint initiative of the United States' NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, the Cassini mission ended in September 2017. Scientists take this to mean the lakes are shallow, and dry out and disappear as seasons change on Titan. The case for seasonal surface changes at Titan's lake district. Finding smaller northern lakes brimming with methane, though, was a surprise, according to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the USA and several European countries.

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