The surface of Saturn’s moon Titan looks like Earth and a new study finally explains why.
The largest moon of Saturn Titan featuring some very Lupa-like landscapes: lakes and rivers, labyrinthine canyons, and soft sand. However, these geological formations on Titan are made of completely different materials. Instead of water, it is liquid methane flowing in rivers, and instead of sand, it is hydrocarbons that blow into the sands.
For years, scientists have been confused as to how these landscapes formed, due to their non-Earth-like composition. But now they have determined a very plausible theory.
Since Titan sediments are theorized to be made from solid organic compounds, they must be more fragile than the silicate-based sediments found on Earth. So nitrogen wind and liquid methane must wear Titan sediments up to fine dust, which cannot support such a variety of structures.
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A team led by Mathieu Lappelle, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Stanford University, has come up with a potential solution: a combination of sintering, wind, and seasonal change could do the trick on Titan
The researchers studied a type of sediment called ooids, which are found on Earth, and have a similar composition to Titan.
Ooids are found in tropical waters where they form very fine grains. These grains simultaneously accumulate material by chemical precipitation and decompose in the sea. As a result, they maintain a consistent size.
Researchers think something similar may be happening on Titan.
“We hypothesized that sintering – which involves contiguous grains coming together into one piece – could balance the abrasion when the wind carries the grains,” Laposte said. said in a statement.
The team analyzed atmospheric data from Titan as recorded during cassini mission to determine how those sediments formed by so many different geological features observed across the planet.
The researchers found that the wind was more common around the moon’s equator, creating optimal conditions for the formation of sands. Elsewhere, however, the team suspects that lower winds allow coarse grains to form, and, in turn, more solid sedimentary rock will form. From there, the wind can break the harder rock down into finer sediment, as happens on Earth.
Furthermore, because Titan is known to be the only celestial body among us solar system in addition to the Earth having a seasonal liquid transport cycle, Laposte’s team hypothesized that the movement of liquid methane likely also contributes to erosion and sediment formation.
“We show that on Titan – as on Earth and what was previously the case on Mars – we have an active sedimentary cycle that can explain the latitudinal distribution of landscapes through episodic abrasion and sintering driven by Titan seasons,” said Lappelle. “It’s pretty fascinating to think of how there’s an alternative world right now, where things are very different, but identical.”
The hypothesis was published in Geophysical Research Letters on April 1.