Lakes of Titan

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False-color, medium-resolution Cassini synthetic aperture radar mosaic of Titan's north polar region, showing hydrocarbon seas, lakes and tributary networks. Blue coloring indicates low radar reflectivity areas, caused by bodies of liquid ethane, methane and dissolved nitrogen.[1] Kraken Mare, the largest sea on Titan, is at lower left. Ligeia Mare is the large body below the pole, and Punga Mare at half its size is just left of the pole. White areas have not been imaged.

The lakes of Titan, a moon of Saturn, are bodies of liquid ethane, methane, and propane that have been detected by the Cassini–Huygens space probe, and had been suspected long before.[2] The large ones are known as maria (seas) and the small ones as lacūs (lakes).[3]

History[edit]

Size comparison of Ligeia Mare with Lake Superior.
Vid Flumina,[4] a 400 km long river emptying into Ligeia Mare (in lower right corner of top image).

The possibility that there were seas on Titan was first suggested based on Voyager 1 and 2 data. The data showed Titan to have a thick atmosphere of approximately the correct temperature and composition to support them. Direct evidence was not obtained until 1995 when data from the Hubble Space Telescope and other observations had already suggested the existence of liquid methane on Titan, either in disconnected pockets or on the scale of satellite-wide oceans, similar to water on Earth.[5]

The Cassini mission affirmed the former hypothesis, although not immediately. When the probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was hoped that hydrocarbon lakes or oceans might be detectable by reflected sunlight from the surface of any liquid bodies, but no specular reflections were initially observed.[6]

The possibility remained that liquid ethane and methane might be found on Titan's polar regions, where they were expected to be abundant and stable.[7] In Titan's south polar region, an enigmatic dark feature named Ontario Lacus was the first suspected lake identified, possibly created by clouds that are observed to cluster in the area.[8] A possible shoreline was also identified near the pole via radar imagery.[9] Following a flyby on July 22, 2006, in which the Cassini spacecraft's radar imaged the northern latitudes (which were at the time in winter), a number of large, smooth (and thus dark to radar) patches were seen dotting the surface near the pole.[10] Based on the observations, scientists announced "definitive evidence of lakes filled with methane on Saturn's moon Titan" in January 2007.[7][11] The Cassini–Huygens team concluded that the imaged features are almost certainly the long-sought hydrocarbon lakes, the first stable bodies of surface liquid found off Earth. Some appear to have channels associated with liquid and lie in topographical depressions.[7] Channels in some regions have created surprisingly little erosion, suggesting erosion on Titan is extremely slow, or some other recent phenomena may have wiped out older riverbeds and landforms.[12] Overall, the Cassini radar observations have shown that lakes cover only a few percent of the surface and are concentrated near the poles, making Titan much drier than Earth.[13] The high relative humidity of methane in Titan's lower atmosphere could be maintained by evaporation from lakes covering only 0.002–0.02% of the whole surface.[14]

During a Cassini flyby in late February 2007, radar and camera observations revealed several large features in the north polar region interpreted as large expanses of liquid methane and/or ethane, including one, Ligeia Mare, with an area of 126,000 km2 (slightly larger than Lake Michigan–Huron, the largest lake on Earth), and another, Kraken Mare, that would later prove to be three times that size. A flyby of Titan's southern polar regions in October 2007 revealed similar, though far smaller, lakelike features.[15]

Infrared specular reflection off Jingpo Lacus, a north polar body of liquid.
Image of Titan taken during Huygens' descent, showing hills and topographical features that resemble a shoreline and drainage channels.

During a close Cassini flyby in December 2007 the visual and mapping instrument observed a lake, Ontario Lacus, in Titan's south polar region. This instrument identifies chemically different materials based on the way they absorb and reflect infrared light. Based on this instrument's observations, scientists concluded that at least one of the large lakes observed on Saturn's moon Titan does in fact contain liquid, that liquid being hydrocarbons, and have positively identified the presence of ethane.[16] This makes Titan the only object in the Solar system other than Earth known to have stable ambient-temperature liquid on its surface (Io has long-lasting surface bodies of lava at elevated temperatures).[17] This would make Titan a very interesting place to observe and study, to refine weather science, as differing liquid and gaseous materials and temperatures are at play there. This would help refine the science of Earth weather forecasting, allowing for better weather forecasts.[citation needed] Radar measurements made in July 2009 and January 2010 indicate that Ontario Lacus is extremely shallow, with an average depth of 0.4–3.2 m, and a maximum depth of 2.9–7.4 m.[18] It may thus resemble a terrestrial mudflat. In contrast, the northern hemisphere's Ligeia Mare has depths of 170 m.[19]

Chemical composition of the lakes[edit]

According to Cassini data, scientists announced on February 13, 2008, that Titan hosts within its polar lakes "hundreds of times more natural gas and other liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth." The desert sand dunes along the equator, while devoid of open liquid, nonetheless hold more organics than all of Earth's coal reserves.[20] It has been estimated that the visible lakes and seas of Titan contain about 300 times the volume of Earth's proven oil reserves.[21] In June 2008, Cassini's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer confirmed the presence of liquid ethane beyond doubt in a lake in Titan's southern hemisphere.[22] The exact blend of hydrocarbons in the lakes is unknown. In addition to ethane, methane is almost certainly present. Methane rain should fall on the lakes but it is vastly more volatile than ethane, so it probably evaporates much faster from lakes, leaving the heavier hydrocarbons behind. Cyclones driven by this evaporation and involving rain as well as gale-force winds of up 20 meters per second are expected to form over the large northern seas only (Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, Punga Mare) in northern summer, lasting up to ten days.[23] According to a computer model developed by Daniel Cordier of the University of Rennes,[24] three-quarters of an average polar lake is ethane, with 10 per cent methane, 7 per cent propane and smaller amounts of hydrogen cyanide, butane, nitrogen and argon. Benzene is expected to fall like snow and quickly dissolve into the lakes, although the lakes may become saturated just as the Dead Sea on Earth is packed with salt. The excess benzene would then build up in a mud-like sludge on the shores and on the lake floors before eventually being eroded by ethane rain, forming a complex cave-riddled landscape.[25] However, the chemical composition and physical properties of the lakes probably varies from one lake to another (Cassini observations in 2013 indicate Ligeia Mare is filled with almost pure liquid methane and consequently the probe's radar signals were able to detect the sea floor 170 m below the liquid surface).[26]

The lack of evidence of waves possibly indicates the lakes contain heavier tar-like hydrocarbons making them more viscous than expected (calculations indicate wind speeds of less than 1 metre per second should whip up detectable waves in Titan's ethane lakes but none have been observed). In such a case, Titan's lakes are rather more like giant tar pits. Another possible explanation would be solidification of hydrocarbons. The optical properties of solid methane surface (close to the melting point) are quite close to the properties of liquid surface however the viscosity of solid methane, even near the melting point, is many orders of magnitude higher, which might explain extraordinary smoothness of the surface.[27] Solid methane is denser than liquid methane so it will eventually sink. However, according to calculations presented in a 2012 paper by Jason Hofgartner[28] the methane ice is initially expected to float as it probably contains pockets of nitrogen gas from Titan's atmosphere. Temperatures close to the freezing point of methane (90.4 Kelvins) could lead to both floating and sinking ice - that is, a hydrocarbon ice crust above the liquid and blocks of hydrocarbon ice on the bottom of the lake bed. The ice is predicted to rise to the surface again at the onset of spring before melting.

Observation of specular reflections[edit]

On 21 December 2008, Cassini passed directly over Ontario Lacus at an altitude of 1900 km and was able to observe specular reflection in radar observations. The signals were much stronger than anticipated and saturated the probe's receiver. The conclusion drawn from the strength of the reflection was that the lake level did not vary by more than 3 mm over a first Fresnel zone reflecting area only 100 m wide (smoother than any natural dry surface on Earth). From this it was surmised that surface winds in the area are minimal at that season and/or the lake fluid is more viscous than expected.[29][30]

On 8 July 2009, Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) observed a specular reflection in 5 µm infrared light off a northern hemisphere body of liquid at 71° N, 337° W. This has been described as at the southern shoreline of Kraken Mare,[31] but on a combined radar-VIMS image the location is shown as a separate lake (later named Jingpo Lacus). The observation was made shortly after the north polar region emerged from 15 years of winter darkness. Because of the polar location of the reflecting liquid body, the observation required a phase angle close to 180°.[32]

Equatorial in-situ observations by the Huygens probe[edit]

The discoveries in the polar regions contrast with the findings of the Huygens probe, which landed near Titan's equator on January 14, 2005. The images taken by the probe during its descent showed no open areas of liquid, but strongly indicated the presence of liquids in the recent past, showing pale hills crisscrossed with dark drainage channels that lead into a wide, flat, darker region. It was initially thought that the dark region might be a lake of a fluid or at least tar-like substance, but it is now clear that Huygens landed on the dark region, and that it is solid without any indication of liquids. A penetrometer studied the composition of the surface as the craft impacted it, and it was initially reported that the surface was similar to wet clay, or perhaps crème brûlée (that is, a hard crust covering a sticky material). Subsequent analysis of the data suggests that this reading was likely caused by Huygens displacing a large pebble as it landed, and that the surface is better described as a "sand" made of ice grains.[33] The images taken after the probe's landing show a flat plain covered in pebbles. The pebbles may be made of water ice and are somewhat rounded, which may indicate the action of fluids.[34] Thermometers indicated that heat was wicked away from Huygens so quickly that the ground must have been damp, and one image shows light reflected by a dewdrop as it falls across the camera's field of view. On Titan, the feeble sunlight allows only about one centimeter of evaporation per year (versus one meter of water on Earth), but the atmosphere can hold the equivalent of about 10 meters of liquid before rain forms (versus about 2 cm on Earth). So Titan's weather is expected to feature downpours of several meters causing flash floods, interspersed by decades or centuries of drought (whereas typical weather on Earth includes a little rain most weeks).[35] Cassini has observed equatorial rainstorms only once since 2004. Despite this, a number of long-standing tropical hydrocarbon lakes were unexpectedly discovered in 2012 (including one near the Huygens landing site in the Shangri-La region which is about half the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake, with a depth of at least 1 meter). As on Earth, the likely supplier is probably underground aquifers, in other words the arid equatorial regions of Titan contain "oases".[36]

Impact of Titan's methane cycle and geology on lake formation[edit]

Models of oscillations in Titan's atmospheric circulation suggest that over the course of a Saturnian year, liquid is transported from the equatorial region to the poles, where it falls as rain. This might account for the equatorial region's relative dryness.[37] According to a computer model developed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech),[36] intense rainstorms should occur in normally rainless equatorial areas during Titan's vernal and autumnal equinoxes—enough liquid to carve out the type of channels that Huygens found. The CalTech model also predicts energy from the Sun will evaporate liquid methane from Titan's surface except at the poles, where the relative absence of sunlight makes it easier for liquid methane to accumulate into permanent lakes. The model also apparently explains why there are more lakes in the northern hemisphere. Due to the eccentricity of Saturn's orbit, the northern summer is longer than the southern summer and consequently the rainy season is longer in the north.

However, recent Cassini observations (from 2013) suggest geology may also explain the geographic distribution of the lakes and other surface features. One puzzling feature of Titan is the lack of impact craters at the poles and mid-latitudes, particularly at lower elevations. According to a theory by Catherine Neish ,[38] these areas may be wetlands fed by subsurface ethane and methane springs. Any crater created by meteorites is thus quickly subsumed by wet sediment. The presence of underground aquifers could explain another mystery. Titan's atmosphere is full of methane, which according to calculations should react with ultraviolet radiation from the sun to produce liquid ethane. Over time, the moon should have built up an ethane ocean hundreds of meters deep instead of only a handful of polar lakes. The presence of wetlands would suggest that the ethane soaks into the ground, forming a subsurface liquid layer akin to groundwater on Earth.

All but 3% of Titan's lakes have been found within a bright unit of terrain covering about 900 kilometers by 1,800 kilometers near the north pole. The lakes found here have very distinctive shapes—rounded complex silhouettes and steep sides—suggesting deformation of the crust created fissures that could be filled up with liquid. A variety of formation mechanisms have been proposed. The explanations range from the collapse of land after a cryovolcanic eruption to karst terrain, where liquids dissolve soluble ice.[39]

Titan Mare Explorer[edit]

Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) was a proposed NASA/ESA lander that would splash down on Ligeia Mare and analyze its surface, shoreline and Titan's atmosphere. If approved and funded, it would be launched in January 2015.[40]

Named lakes and seas[edit]

False-color near infrared view of Titan's northern hemisphere, showing its seas and lakes. Orange areas near some of them may be deposits of organic evaporite left behind by receding liquid hydrocarbon.
Intricate networks of channels drain into Kraken Mare (lower left) and Ligeia Mare (upper right).
Hydrocarbon lakes on Titan: Cassini radar image, 2006. Bolsena Lacus is at lower right, with Sotonera Lacus just above and to its left. Koitere Lacus and Neagh Lacus are in the middle distance, left of center and on the right margin, respectively. Mackay Lacus is at upper left.
Titan's "kissing lakes", formally named Abaya Lacus, about 65 km (40 mi) across
Feia Lacus, about 47 km (29 mi) across, a lake with several large peninsulas

Features labeled lacus are believed to be ethane/methane lakes, while features labeled lacunae are believed to be dry lake beds. Both are named after lakes on Earth.[3]

Titanean maria (large hydrocarbon seas) are named after sea monsters in world mythology.[3]

Name Coordinates Length (km)[note 1] Area (km2) Source of name
Kraken Mare 68°00′N 310°00′W / 68.0°N 310.0°W / 68.0; -310.0 1,170 ca. 400,000 The Kraken, Norse sea monster.
Ligeia Mare 79°00′N 248°00′W / 79.0°N 248.0°W / 79.0; -248.0 500 126,000 Ligeia, one of the Sirens, Greek monsters
Punga Mare 85°06′N 339°42′W / 85.1°N 339.7°W / 85.1; -339.7 380 Punga, Māori ancestor of sharks and lizards
Name Coordinates Length (km)[note 1] Source of name
Abaya Lacus 73°10′N 45°33′W / 73.17°N 45.55°W / 73.17; -45.55 65 Lake Abaya, Ethiopia
Albano Lacus 65°54′N 236°24′W / 65.9°N 236.4°W / 65.9; -236.4 6.2 Lake Albano, Italy
Atitlán Lacus 69°18′N 238°48′W / 69.3°N 238.8°W / 69.3; -238.8 13.7 Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Bolsena Lacus 75°45′N 10°17′W / 75.75°N 10.28°W / 75.75; -10.28 101 Lake Bolsena, Italy
Cardiel Lacus 70°12′N 206°30′W / 70.2°N 206.5°W / 70.2; -206.5 22 Cardiel Lake, Argentina
Cayuga Lacus 69°48′N 230°00′W / 69.8°N 230.0°W / 69.8; -230.0 22.7 Cayuga Lake, USA
Feia Lacus 73°42′N 64°25′W / 73.7°N 64.41°W / 73.7; -64.41 47 Lake Feia, Brazil
Freeman Lacus 73°36′N 211°06′W / 73.6°N 211.1°W / 73.6; -211.1 26 Lake Freeman, USA
Hammar Lacus 48°36′N 308°17′W / 48.6°N 308.29°W / 48.6; -308.29 200 Lake Hammar, Iraq
Jingpo Lacus 73°00′N 336°00′W / 73.0°N 336.0°W / 73.0; -336.0 240 Jingpo Lake, China
Junín Lacus 66°54′N 236°54′W / 66.9°N 236.9°W / 66.9; -236.9 6.3 Lake Junín, Peru
Kivu Lacus 87°00′N 121°00′W / 87.0°N 121.0°W / 87.0; -121.0 77.5 Lake Kivu, on the border of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Koitere Lacus 79°24′N 36°08′W / 79.4°N 36.14°W / 79.4; -36.14 68 Koitere, Finland
Ladoga Lacus 74°48′N 26°06′W / 74.8°N 26.1°W / 74.8; -26.1 110 Lake Ladoga, Russia
Lanao Lacus 71°00′N 217°42′W / 71.0°N 217.7°W / 71.0; -217.7 34.5 Lake Lanao, Philippines
Logtak Lacus 70°48′N 124°06′W / 70.8°N 124.1°W / 70.8; -124.1 14.3 Loktak Lake, India
Mackay Lacus 78°19′N 97°32′W / 78.32°N 97.53°W / 78.32; -97.53 180 Lake Mackay, Australia
Müggel Lacus 84°26′N 203°30′W / 84.44°N 203.5°W / 84.44; -203.5 170 Müggelsee, Germany
Mývatn Lacus 78°11′N 135°17′W / 78.19°N 135.28°W / 78.19; -135.28 55 Mývatn, Iceland
Neagh Lacus 81°07′N 32°10′W / 81.11°N 32.16°W / 81.11; -32.16 98 Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland
Ohrid Lacus 71°48′N 221°54′W / 71.8°N 221.9°W / 71.8; -221.9 17.3 Lake Ohrid, Republic of Macedonia
Oneida Lacus 76°08′N 131°50′W / 76.14°N 131.83°W / 76.14; -131.83 51 Oneida Lake, USA
Ontario Lacus 72°00′S 183°00′W / 72.0°S 183.0°W / -72.0; -183.0 235 Lake Ontario, on the border between Canada and the United States.
Sevan Lacus 69°42′N 125°36′W / 69.7°N 125.6°W / 69.7; -125.6 46.9 Lake Sevan, Armenia
Sionascaig Lacus 41°31′S 278°07′W / 41.52°S 278.12°W / -41.52; -278.12 143.2 Loch Sionascaig, Scotland
Sotonera Lacus 76°45′N 17°29′W / 76.75°N 17.49°W / 76.75; -17.49 63 Lake Sotonera, Spain
Sparrow Lacus 84°18′N 64°42′W / 84.3°N 64.7°W / 84.3; -64.7 81.4 Sparrow Lake, Canada
Towada Lacus 71°24′N 244°12′W / 71.4°N 244.2°W / 71.4; -244.2 24 Lake Towada, Japan
Urmia Lacus 39°16′S 276°33′W / 39.27°S 276.55°W / -39.27; -276.55 28.6 Lake Urmia, Iran
Uvs Lacus 69°36′N 245°42′W / 69.6°N 245.7°W / 69.6; -245.7 26.9 Uvs Nuur, Mongolia
Vänern Lacus 70°24′N 223°06′W / 70.4°N 223.1°W / 70.4; -223.1 43.9 Vänern, Sweden
Waikare Lacus 81°36′N 126°00′W / 81.6°N 126.0°W / 81.6; -126.0 52.5 Lake Waikare, New Zealand
Name Coordinates Length (km)[note 1] Source of name
Atacama Lacuna 62°48′N 227°36′W / 62.8°N 227.6°W / 62.8; -227.6 35.9 Atacama Desert and associated salt pans
Eyre Lacuna 72°36′N 225°06′W / 72.6°N 225.1°W / 72.6; -225.1 25.4 Lake Eyre, Australia
Jerid Lacuna 66°42′N 221°00′W / 66.7°N 221°W / 66.7; -221 42.6 Chott el Djerid, Tunisia
Kutch Lacuna 88°24′N 217°00′W / 88.4°N 217°W / 88.4; -217 175 Great Rann of Kutch, India-Pakistan
Melrhir Lacuna 64°54′N 212°36′W / 64.9°N 212.6°W / 64.9; -212.6 23 Chott Melrhir, Algeria
Nakuru Lacuna 65°49′N 94°00′W / 65.81°N 94°W / 65.81; -94 188 Lake Nakuru, Kenya
Ngami Lacuna 66°42′N 213°54′W / 66.7°N 213.9°W / 66.7; -213.9 37.2 Lake Ngami, Botswana
Racetrack Lacuna 66°06′N 224°54′W / 66.1°N 224.9°W / 66.1; -224.9 9.9 Racetrack Playa, USA
Uyuni Lacuna 66°18′N 228°24′W / 66.3°N 228.4°W / 66.3; -228.4 27 Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Woytchugga Lacuna 68°53′N 109°00′W / 68.88°N 109°W / 68.88; -109 449 Lake Woytchugga, Australia

Gallery[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c The USGS web site gives size as a "diameter", but it is actually the length in the longest dimension.

References[edit]

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External links[edit]