Recent evidence from the Huygens Probe of the Cassini Mission suggests that Titan, the largest moon orbiting Saturn, is a world where rivers of liquid methane sculpt channels in continents of ice. Surface images even show gravel-sized pieces of water ice that resemble rounded stones lying in a dry riverbed on Earth.
But with a surface temperature of minus 179 degrees Celsius and an atmospheric pressure 1 1/2 times that of Earth, could fluvial processes on Titan be anything like those on Earth?
"The idea that rivers of methane moving chunks of ice on Titan ought to obey the same rules as rivers on Earth is not what you would assume at first," said Gary Parker, the W. H. Johnson Professor of Geology and a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "However, if river dynamics are truly understood at a physical level, then relations that provide reasonable results on Earth ought to provide similarly reasonable results on Titan."
Parker, who has collected data from rivers all over the world, has calculated what should be key similarities and key differences between river networks on Earth and Titan.
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