September 30, 2014

The Scientist: Prof. Alexander Hayes Studies Titan’s Lakes

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By MATTHEW LUEBBERS

Prof. Alexander Hayes ’03, M.Eng. ’03, astronomy, is taking a close look at the lakes of another world. Hayes is part of the Cassini RADAR team, using microwaves to see through the clouds for the first time and down to the surface of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons.

Titan is the only moon in our solar system that possesses a thick, hazy atmosphere, according to Hayes. Because of this, since the moon’s first observation in the early 1900s, scientists had no way of seeing down to the surface of this unique world. That is until the Cassini space probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004.

“When the first spacecraft went to Titan, the Pioneer 11 spacecraft, all it saw was this hazy orange ball. You can’t see down to the surface,” Hayes said.

Despite this, Hayes said, other measurements including temperature, pressure and methane levels indicated that Titan could potentially have liquid on its surface.

“For the longest time, we didn’t know whether Titan was an ocean world or whether it had a solid surface. That’s why one of the primary reasons Cassini, the current flagship mission in the Saturnian system, was sent was to determine what was going on with Titan,” Hayes said.

Much of Hayes’ research from the Cassini mission centers on the lakes of Titan. The moon is the only place outside of Earth where researchers have discovered bodies of liquid on its surface, according to Hayes. But unlike the lakes of Earth, Titan’s lakes are filled with liquid hydrocarbons: methane and ethane.

According to Hayes, Titan has a hydrological system quite similar to the water cycle of Earth. Rain falls, channels form and the entire surface of the planet is affected by interactions between the lakes, the atmosphere and the surface.

Courtesy of Prof. Alexander HayesAbove Caguya’s waters | Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, is home to lakes like Ligeia Mare (pictured) that are filled with liquid methane and ethane. Prof. Alexander Hayes, astronomy, works on the Cassini mission to Saturn, which has provided new information about the dynamics of Titan’s lakes.

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