Cassini observes Titan's flooded canyons

Saturn's moon Titan is already known to host seas of liquid methane, but now Cassini has discovered flooded canyons branching out from one of its northern seas.

A Cassini image showing the massive sea on Titan known as Ligeia Mare. The bright feature highlighted is seen to change size in brightness over time, indicating tides, as well as sea level and seafloor changes. NASA scientists were able to use Cassini's radar to spot flooded canyons branching out from the sea.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

NASA scientists have discovered deep canyons on Saturn’s moon Titan that are filled with liquid hydrocarbons, marking the first direct observation of liquid-flooded channels on the moon.

The discovery was made using data acquired by the Cassini spacecraft. It found a network of channels branching out from the moon’s northern hydrocarbon sea Ligeia Mare that are just under a kilometre wide, with slopes steeper than 40°. The canyons’ depths range from 240 to 570 metres, top to bottom.

The canyon network, known as Vid Flumina, appeared as dark branches in Cassini radar images, suggesting they were flooded with liquid from the sea, but this hypothesis had not been confirmed. 

The spacecraft’s radar was then used as an altimeter to measure the height of features on Titan’s surface. This was combined with previous radar images to enable NASA scientists to make the discovery.

Cassini’s radar signals reflected off the bottoms of the features and the radar instrument also observed a glint of light, which indicated a smooth surface just like the hydrocarbon seas also on Titan.

Scientists are still unsure as to what created such deep, steep canyons, but believe it could be a result of uplift of the moon’s terrain or a change in sea level causing liquid methane from the sea to carve deep, steep channels in the moon's surface.

"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,” says lead author Valerio Poggiali of the University of Rome. What is clear is that any description of Titan's geological evolution needs to be able to explain how the canyons got there.”

Carousel image: Titan passes in front of its host planet Saturn
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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