Astronomers Discover Canyons and Rivers of Liquid Methane on Titan

Wednesday, 02 November 2016 - 3:15PM
Astronomy
Space
Solar System
Wednesday, 02 November 2016 - 3:15PM
Astronomers Discover Canyons and Rivers of Liquid Methane on Titan
Saturn's moon Titan has always been a mystery, especially because its dense atmosphere wouldn't allow astronomers to peek at its surface for years. All that changed with the Cassini-Huygen mission, which sent a satellite and probe to explore the moon back in 1997 (it arrived in 2004). Titan is a pretty remarkable place—it's got a similar hydrological cycle to Earth, and it's the only other planetary body in the solar system with stable liquid oceans on its surface. However, those oceans are liquid methane, not water. Also, the clouds are composed of cyanide. And it's incredibly cold—almost -300 F.

But the coolest new thing the Cassini mission has discovered is the existence of a network of canyons, filled with rivers of liquid methane. These might have driven early astronomers crazy, the way the supposed 'canals' on Mars made people like H.G. Wells think there was a Martian civilization on the planet. Even the science team admits that finding canyons on Titan is pretty surreal:

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"Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane. And yet it's remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds," said team member Alex Hayes, from Cornell University. The team says these channels and canyons form a river network they're calling Vid Flumina. Each of these canyons are about 0.8 kilometres (0.5 miles) wide and somewhere between 244 metres (800 feet) and 579 metres (1,900 feet) deep.
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It's unclear how these canyons formed—on Earth, canyons are formed by erosion, which is a long process usually carried out by running water or wind. But the canyons on Titan are comparatively narrow and deep, implying that they were created very rapidly. The team is trying out multiple hypotheses to explain the formation of the canyons and where all the eroded material was dumped, but nothing's final yet. Either way, it'd be cool to send a submarine into Titan's river canyons and out into the methane oceans—Earth's oceans are still mostly unexplored, and they already contain amazing, alien landscapes that look like other planets. But realistically, no one's going to send an interstellar submarine


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"In fact, Titan is such a promising place for potential alien life, NASA is planning on sending an autonomous submarine there to explore these rivers and seas after Cassini finishes its mission.
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Are you kidding us, NASA? You've already got the plans drawn up?
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