Thursday, August 08, 2013

Titan's Missing Waves

One of the most shocking discoveries of the past 10 years is how much the landscape of Saturn's moon Titan resembles Earth. Like our own blue planet, the surface of Titan is dotted with lakes and seas; it has river channels, islands, mud, rain clouds and maybe even rainbows. The giant moon is undeniably wet.

The "water" on Titan is not, however, H2O. With a surface temperature dipping 290 degrees F below zero, Titan is far too cold for liquid water. Instead, researchers believe the fluid that sculpts Titan is an unknown mixture of methane, ethane, and other hard-to-freeze hydrocarbons.

The idea that Titan is a wet world with its own alien waters is widely accepted by planetary scientists. Nothing else can account for the observations: NASA's Cassini spacecraft has flown by Titan more than 90 times since 2004, pinging the moon with radar and mapping its lakes and seas. ESA's Huygens probe parachuted to the surface of Titan in 2005, descending through humid clouds and actually landing in moist soil.

Yet something has been bothering Alex Hayes, a planetary scientist on the Cassini radar team at Cornell University.

If Titan is really so wet, he wonders, "Where are all the waves?"

No comments: