Jonathan Lunine says Saturn’s moon may have ice volcanoes

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
Tucson, Arizona

January 27, 2009

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