Findings suggest the surface of Saturn’s largest moon may have undergone a recent transformation.
For many years, Titan’s thick, methane- and nitrogen-rich atmosphere kept astronomers from seeing what lies beneath. Saturn’s largest moon appeared through telescopes as a hazy orange orb, in contrast to other heavily cratered moons in the solar system.
In 2004, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft — a probe that flies by Titan as it orbits Saturn — penetrated Titan’s haze, providing scientists with their first detailed images of the surface. Radar images revealed an icy terrain carved out over millions of years by rivers of liquid methane, similar to how rivers of water have etched into Earth’s rocky continents.
While images of Titan have revealed its present landscape, very little is known about its geologic past. Now researchers at MIT and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have analyzed images of Titan’s river networks and determined that in some regions, rivers have created surprisingly little erosion. The researchers say there are two possible explanations: either erosion on Titan is extremely slow, or some other recent phenomena may have wiped out older riverbeds and landforms.
“It’s a surface that should have eroded much more than what we’re seeing, if the river networks have been active for a long time,” says Taylor Perron, the Cecil and Ida Green Assistant Professor of Geology at MIT. “It raises some very interesting questions about what has been happening on Titan in the last billion years.”
A paper detailing the group’s findings will appear in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets.
What accounts for a low crater count?
Compared to most moons in our solar system, Titan is relatively smooth, with few craters pockmarking its facade. Titan is around four billion years old, about the same age as the rest of the solar system. But judging by the number of craters, one might estimate that its surface is much younger, between 100 million and one billion years old.
What might explain this moon’s low crater count? Perron says the answer may be similar to what happens on Earth.
“We don’t have many impact craters on Earth,” Perron says. “People flock to them because they’re so few, and one explanation is that Earth’s continents are always eroding or being covered with sediment. That may be the case on Titan, too.”