Volcanoes on Titan: NASA spies eruption evidence on Saturn’s moon ‘could continue today’

Morphological features including nested collapses, elevated ramparts and islands indicate some of the small depressions in Titan’s polar north region are volcanic collapse craters, according to landmark study. Several similar depressions have also been found near the south pole of Saturn’s moon.

Dr Charles Wood, a Planetary Science Institute senior scientist nd the paper’s lead author, said: “The close association of the proposed volcanic craters with polar lakes is consistent with a volcanic origin through explosive eruptions followed by collapse, as either maars or calderas.

The apparent freshness of some craters may mean that volcanism has been relatively recently active on Titan or even continues today

Dr Charles Wood

“The apparent freshness of some craters may mean that volcanism has been relatively recently active on Titan or even continues today.”

The NASA Cassini mission revealed many landforms on Saturn’s moon Titan that are like those found on Earth.

Sand dunes, river valleys and lakes are all a result of actions by the existence of an atmosphere on the lunar surface, created by solar heating.

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Dr Wood added: “We demonstrate that there is also evidence for internal heat, manifest at the surface as cryovolcanoes, made from melting the water ice crust into liquid water that erupts onto Titan’s surface.

“These features are roughly round, with raised rims, and they sometimes overlap each other.

“They are consistent with the shapes of other volcanic landforms on Earth and Mars formed by explosion, excavation and collapse.

“That these features are at the polar regions, near the lakes of methane, may indicate methane, nitrogen or some other volatile may power them.

“The features appear relatively fresh, meaning they could still be forming today.”

The news coincides with another announcement that flat spots on Saturn’s moon Titan may be the floors of ancient lake beds.

Astronomers have for the last 20 years seen particularly bright radio signals emanating from Titan’s equator.

Those signals, called specular reflections, occur when electromagnetic waves bounce off of a flat surface at the same angle they went in, like light off a mirror.

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The simplest explanation for the reflections was Titan boasted large bodies of liquid in its equatorial tropics.

When NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, it confirmed Titan is speckled with lakes and seas — although the liquid is ethane and methane, rather than water.

Dr Jason Hofgartner, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said: “Titan is still currently the only other place in the universe that we know to have liquid on its surface, just like the Earth.”

However, the lakes and seas are concentrated near Titan’s poles, not the tropics.

And the regions where the specular reflections show up are perplexingly dry.

To solve the riddle, Dr Hofgartner and his colleagues revisited archive data from various sources.

After correcting discrepancies between the ways the various observations referred to locations on Titan, the team realised the reflections originated from a few specific spots.

The researchers considered whether rainfall, dunes or dry lake beds could be responsible for the reflections, and found that only lake beds explain the timing and locations of the signals.

lanetary scientist Zibi Turtle of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory who was not involved in the study, said: “I think it’s a compelling argument.

“It’s great to have an answer to this outstanding question and one more piece of Titan that we understand better now.”

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