Jonathan Lunine: The atmosphere of Titan makes it difficult to see the surface. That’s why it has taken so long to peel away Titan’s secrets bit by bit.
That’s astronomer Jonathan Lunine. He’s speaking about Saturn’s largest and most mysterious moon, Titan, whose surface is covered by clouds. He said NASA’s Cassini spacecraft might have detected volcano-like features on Titan’s surface.
Jonathan Lunine: Since we know the crust of Titan is ice and not rock, we call those ‘cryovolcanoes.’ These are places where the crust of Titan has melted.
Earth’s volcanoes spew magma, but Titan’s ice-volcanoes are different.
Jonathan Lunine: So if you were standing on Titan’s surface and watching a cryovolcanic flow, it would be a rather gooey mixture of water and ammonia – it would look like molasses flowing out across the surface.
Lunine suggested Titan’s volcanoes also release methane gas, which would condense to form clouds, just like water on Earth.
Jonathan Lunine: It’s methane that flows throughout the streams on Titan, it’s methane that makes the rain and the clouds, it’s methane that drives the climate.
The Cassini spacecraft’s findings are still controversial.
Jonathan Lunine: Are these really cryovolcanic features, or are they something else?
Our thanks to:
Jonathan Lunine, Cassini Interdisciplinary Scientist
University of Arizona
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.