October 9, 2003

Hydrocarbon Lakes Found on Titan

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A Cornell-led team of astronomers has discovered evidence of hydrocarbon liquid lakes on the surface of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

The new research is a first step in exploring Titan, the only moon of any planet with an atmosphere and also the largest body in the solar system of which there is very little known.

Over the past two years, the team has worked at the Arecibo Observatory, run by Cornell for the National Science Foundation, where they radiated a signal at Titan a total of twenty-five times.

The signal took 2.5 hours to bounce back and create a “weak little echo” — enough to give information about the surface of the moon, according to Donald Campbell, a Cornell astronomer.

The telescope put out almost a megawatt of energy in the course of the research making it “the world’s most powerful radar system by far,” Campbell explained.

The bounced signal revealed a great deal: a reflection on certain areas of Titan’s surface denoted a very smooth surface, very likely a body of liquid. When the radar reached Titan, it appeared to glint off of these smooth areas, “like when the sun glints off the ocean,” explained Campbell.

The hydrocarbon that may make up these lakes would be liquid on Titus, though they would be gas on Earth, because Titan is very cold, approximately -179 degrees celsius.

It is unlikely that hydrocarbon lakes would serve as any determinant of possible life. “It’s just awfully cold,” Campbell said. The possibility still exists, however, that the effect could just come from an extremely smooth solid surface.

The next step that astronomers are waiting for is the landing of the Cassini space craft in the Saturn system in July of next year. A probe will then parachute through Titan’s atmosphere and onto the ground in Jan. of 2005, sampling all of the atmosphere on its way. The probe will also have a camera, and may give further information to confirm or reject the new evidence of hydrocarbon lakes.

“If the Huygen’s probe splashes down, then we’ll know,” Campbell said.

Archived article by Amy Green