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Scientists say that a 'global layer of water' exists on Saturn's moon Titan

Friday, March 21, 2008

This graphic depicts a cross-section of Saturn's moon, Titan.
Image: NASA/JPL.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered evidence that points to the existence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Saturn's moon Titan.

"We believe that about 100 kilometers (62 miles) beneath the ice and organic-rich surface is an internal ocean of liquid water mixed with ammonia," said Bryan Stiles of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

If the findings turn out to be true, this will be the fourth such moon in our solar system found to have some form of water on it. Currently only three other moons, all from Jupiter, have been found to have known water sources. Ganymede, Callisto and Europa are so far the only known moons with a water source.

Cassini pre launch, in 1997
Image: NASA.

Members of the mission's science team used Cassini's Synthetic Aperture Radar to collect imaging data during 19 separate passes over Titan between October 2005 and May 2007. The radar can see through Titan's dense, methane-rich atmospheric haze, detailing never-before-seen surface features and establishing their locations on the moon's surface.

Using data from the radar's early observations, the scientists and radar engineers established the locations of 50 unique landmarks on Titan's surface. They then searched for these same lakes, canyons and mountains in the reams of data returned by Cassini in its later flybys of Titan. They found prominent surface features had shifted from their expected positions by up to 30 kilometers (19 miles). A systematic displacement of surface features would be difficult to explain unless the moon's icy crust was decoupled from its core by an internal ocean, making it easier for the crust to move.

Cassini scientists will not have long to wait before another go at Titan. On March 25, just prior to its closest approach at an altitude of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), Cassini will employ its Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer to examine Titan's upper atmosphere. Immediately after closest approach, the spacecraft's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer will capture high-resolution images of Titan's southeast quadrant.

The study of Titan is a major goal of the Cassini-Huygens mission because it may preserve, in deep-freeze, many of the chemical compounds that preceded life on Earth. Titan is the only moon in the solar system that possesses a dense atmosphere. The moon's atmosphere is 1.5 times denser than Earth's. Titan is the largest of Saturn's moons, bigger than the planet Mercury.


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