Volume: 03, Issue: 13 06/29/2005 
This view of Titan's south polar region reveals an intriguing dark feature that may be the site of a past or present lake of liquid hydrocarbons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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The dark, footprint-shaped feature near the upper left could be a past or present reservoir for Titan's methane rains. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
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Other Articles in This Issue:
Deep Impact on Course for Independence Day Collision
Researchers Brace for Violent Hurricane Season
Hubble Chases Unruly Planet
Learn From Women in Space Fields
 

Cassini Reveals Lake-Like Feature on Titan

Scientists are fascinated by a dark, lake-like feature observed on Saturn's moon Titan. NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured a series of images showing a marking darker than anything else around it. Its smooth, shore-like boundaries are unlike any before seen on the hazy moon.

"I'd say this is definitely the best candidate we've seen so far for a liquid hydrocarbon lake on Titan," said Dr. Alfred McEwen, Cassini imaging team member and a professor at the University of Arizona.

The suspected lake area measures 145 miles long by 45 miles wide, about the size of Lake Ontario on the U.S.-Canadian border.

"This feature is unique in our exploration of Titan so far," said Dr. Elizabeth Turtle, Cassini imaging team associate at the University of Arizona. "Its perimeter is intriguingly reminiscent of the shorelines of lakes on Earth that are smoothed by water erosion and deposition."

The feature lies in Titan's cloudiest region, which is presumably the most likely site of recent methane rainfall. This, coupled with the shore-like smoothness of the feature's perimeter, makes it hard for scientists to resist speculation about what might be filling the lake, if it indeed is one.

"It's possible that some of the storms in this region are strong enough to make methane rain that reaches the surface," said Cassini imaging team member Dr. Tony DelGenio of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Given Titan's cold temperatures, it could take a long time for any liquid methane collecting on the surface to evaporate. So it might not be surprising for a methane-filled lake to persist for a long time."

Despite earlier predictions, no definitive evidence for open bodies of liquid have been found on Titan. Cassini has not yet been in a favorable position for using its cameras to check for glints from possible surface liquids in the south polar region.

"An alternate explanation is that this feature was once a lake, but has since dried up, leaving behind dark deposits," Turtle said.

Yet another possibility is that the lake is simply a broad depression filled by dark, solid hydrocarbons falling from the atmosphere onto Titan's surface. In this case, the smooth outline might be the result of a process unrelated to rainfall, such as a sinkhole or a volcanic caldera. Dr. Torrence Johnson, an imaging team member at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, likened the feature to lava lakes found on Jupiterís moon Io.

"It is already clear that whatever this lake-like feature turns out to be, it is only one of many puzzles that Titan will throw at us as we continue our reconnaissance of the surface over the next few years," said Dr. Carolyn Porco, imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute.

Thirty-nine more Titan flybys are planned for Cassini's prime mission. In future flybys, the science teams will search for opportunities to observe the lake feature again and to look for mirror-like reflections from smooth surfaces elsewhere on Titan. Such reflections would strongly support the presence of liquids.

For more information and images, visit the following websites:
http://www.nasa.gov/cassini
http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov
http://ciclops.org

    
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