NASA's Cassini spacecraft has found deep canyons on Saturn's moon, Titan, that are flooded with liquid methane.
A research paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters describes how scientists analyzed Cassini data from a close pass the spacecraft made over Titan in May 2013. During the flyby, Cassini's radar instrument focused on channels that branch out from the large, northern sea Ligeia Mare.
Data from Cassini's observations reveal that a network of channels named Vid Flumina are narrow canyons, generally less than half a mile wide, with slopes steeper than 40 degrees, and measure 790 to 1,870 feet from top to bottom.
The branching channels appear dark in radar images, much like Titan's methane-rich seas. This suggested to scientists that the channels might also be filled with liquid, but a direct detection had not been made until now.
Key to understanding the nature of the channels was the way Cassini's radar signal reflected off the bottoms of the features. The radar instrument observed a glint, indicating an extremely smooth surface like that observed from Titan's hydrocarbon seas. The timing of the radar echoes, as they bounced off the canyons' edges and floors, provided a direct measure of their depths.
The presence of such deep cuts in the landscape indicates that whatever process created them was active for a long time or eroded down much faster than other areas on Titan’s surface. The researchers' proposed scenarios include uplift of the terrain and changes in sea level, or perhaps both.
"It's likely that a combination of these forces contributed to the formation of the deep canyons, but at present it's not clear to what degree each was involved. What is clear is that any description of Titan's geological evolution needs to be able to explain how the canyons got there," said Valerio Poggiali of the University of Rome, a Cassini radar team associate and lead author of the study.
ABOVE IMAGE: NASA's Cassini spacecraft pinged the surface of Titan with microwaves, finding that some channels are deep, steep-sided canyons filled with liquid hydrocarbons. One such feature is Vid Flumina, the branching network of narrow lines in the upper-left quadrant of the image. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI