Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Scientists explain puzzling lake asymmetry on Saturn's moon Titan

Date:
November 30, 2009
Source:
California Institute of Technology
Summary:
Researchers suggest that the eccentricity of Saturn's orbit around the sun may be responsible for the unusually uneven distribution of methane and ethane lakes over the northern and southern polar regions of the planet's largest moon, Titan. On Earth, similar "astronomical forcing" of climate drives ice-age cycles.

This image shows the northern and southern hemispheres of Titan, showing the disparity between the abundance of lakes in the north and their paucity in the South. The hypothesis presented favors long-term flux of volatile hydrocarbons, predominantly methane, from hemisphere to hemisphere. Recently the direction of transport has been from south to north, but the effect would have reversed tens of thousands of years ago.
Credit: The mosaic includes Cassini SAR, ISS, and VIS images (NASA/JPL/Caltech/University of Arizona/Cassini Imaging Team).

Researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) suggest that the eccentricity of Saturn's orbit around the sun may be responsible for the unusually uneven distribution of methane and ethane lakes over the northern and southern polar regions of the planet's largest moon, Titan. On Earth, similar "astronomical forcing" of climate drives ice-age cycles.

Related Articles


A paper describing the theory appears in the November 29th advance online edition of Nature Geoscience.

As revealed by Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging data taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been surveying Saturn and its moons since 2004, liquid hydrocarbon-filled lakes in Titan's northern high latitudes cover 20 times more area than lakes in the southern high latitudes. There are also significantly more partially filled and now-empty lakes in the north. (In the SAR data, smooth features -- like the surfaces of lakes -- appear as dark areas, while rougher features -- such as the bottom of an empty lake -- appear bright.)

Assuming that the asymmetry is not a statistical fluke (which is unlikely because of the large amount of data collected by Cassini), scientists initially considered the idea that "there is something inherently different about the northern polar region versus the south in terms of topography, such that liquid rains, drains, or infiltrates the ground more in one hemisphere," says Oded Aharonson, associate professor of planetary science at Caltech and lead author of the Nature Geoscience paper. However, he notes, there are no substantial known differences between the north and south to support this possibility.

Alternatively, the mechanism may be seasonal. One year on Titan lasts 29.5 Earth years. Every 15 Earth years the seasons reverse, so that it becomes summer in one hemisphere and winter in the other. (Currently, summer has just begun in the northern hemisphere, and winter in the south.) According to the seasonal hypothesis, methane rainfall and evaporation vary in different seasons -- recently filling lakes in the north while drying lakes in the south.

The problem with this idea, Aharonson says, is that it explains decreases of about one meter per year in the depths of lakes in the summer hemisphere. But Titan's lakes are a few hundred meters deep on average, and wouldn't drain (or fill) in just 15 years.

In addition, seasonal variation can't account for the disparity between the hemispheres in the number of empty lakes; the northern pole has roughly three times as many dried-up lake basins as the south (and seven times as many partially filled ones).

"How do you move the hole in the ground?" Aharonson asks. "The seasonal mechanism may be responsible for part of the global transport of liquid methane, but it's not the whole story."

A more plausible explanation, say Aharonson and his colleagues, is related to the eccentricity of the orbit of Saturn -- and hence of Titan, its satellite -- around the sun.

Like Earth and the other planets, Saturn's orbit is not perfectly circular, but is instead somewhat elliptical -- or eccentric -- and oblique. Because of this, during its southern summer, Titan is about 12 percent closer to the sun than it is during the northern summer. As a result, northern summers are long and subdued while southern summers are short and intense.

Aharonson and his colleagues think these differences in the characteristics of the seasons could somehow affect the relative amounts of precipitation and evaporation of methane in the hemispheres' respective summers.

"We propose that, in this orbital configuration, the difference between evaporation and precipitation is not equal in opposite seasons, which means there is a net transport of methane from south to north," he says. This imbalance would lead to an accumulation of methane -- and hence the formation of many more lakes -- in the northern hemisphere.

This situation is only true right now, however. Over very long time scales of tens of thousands of years, Saturn's orbital parameters vary, at times causing Titan to be closer to the sun during its northern summer and farther away in southern summers, and producing a reverse in the net transport of methane. This should lead to a buildup of the hydrocarbon -- and an abundance of lakes -- in the southern hemisphere.

"Like Earth, Titan has tens-of-thousands-of-year variations in climate driven by orbital motions," Aharonson says. On Earth, these variations, known as Milankovitch cycles, are linked to the global redistribution of water in the form of glaciers, and are responsible for ice-age cycles. "On Titan, there are long-term climate cycles in the global movement of methane that make lakes and carve lake basins. In both cases we find a record of the process embedded in the geology," he adds.

"We may have found an example of present-day climate change, analogous to Milankovitch climate cycles on Earth, on another object in the solar system," he says.

The work was partially funded by the Cassini Project.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by California Institute of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Oded Aharonson, Alexander G. Hayes; Jonathan I. Lunine, Ralph D. Lorenz, Michael D. Allison and Charles Elachi. Titan's Asymmetric Lake Distribution and its Potential Astronomical Evolution. Nature Geoscience, November 29, 2009

Cite This Page:

California Institute of Technology. "Scientists explain puzzling lake asymmetry on Saturn's moon Titan." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 November 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091129153401.htm>.
California Institute of Technology. (2009, November 30). Scientists explain puzzling lake asymmetry on Saturn's moon Titan. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 31, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091129153401.htm
California Institute of Technology. "Scientists explain puzzling lake asymmetry on Saturn's moon Titan." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091129153401.htm (accessed January 31, 2015).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Space & Time News

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Video Shows Stars If They Were as Close to Earth as Sun

Video Shows Stars If They Were as Close to Earth as Sun

Buzz60 (Jan. 30, 2015) Russia&apos;s space agency created a video that shows what our sky would look like with different star if they were as close as our sun. Patrick Jones (@Patrick_E_Jones) walks us through the cool video. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dog-Loving Astronaut Wins Best Photo of 2015

Dog-Loving Astronaut Wins Best Photo of 2015

Buzz60 (Jan. 30, 2015) Retired astronaut and television host, Leland Melvin, snuck his dogs into the NASA studio so they could be in his official photo. As Mara Montalbano (@maramontalbano) shows us, the secret is out. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
NASA Holds Memorial to Remember Astronauts

NASA Holds Memorial to Remember Astronauts

AP (Jan. 29, 2015) NASA is remembering 17 astronauts who were killed in the line of duty and dozens more who have died since the agency&apos;s beginning. A remembrance ceremony was held Thursday at NASA&apos;s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. (Jan. 29) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Asteroid's Moon Spotted During Earth Flyby

Asteroid's Moon Spotted During Earth Flyby

Rumble (Jan. 27, 2015) Scientists working with NASA&apos;s Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California discovered an unexpected moon while observing asteroid 2004 BL86 during its recent flyby past Earth. Credit to &apos;NASA JPL&apos;. Video provided by Rumble
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Space & Time

Matter & Energy

Computers & Math

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

    Technology News



    Save/Print:
    Share:

    Free Subscriptions


    Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

    Get Social & Mobile


    Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

    Have Feedback?


    Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
    Mobile: iPhone Android Web
    Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
    Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
    Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins