Science

Saturn’s strange moon Titan looks a bit like Earth, and scientists may finally understand why

The surface of Titan, Saturn’s moon, looks a bit like Earth, and a new study finally explains why.

Saturn’s largest moon Titan has some very Earth-like landscapes: lakes and rivers, labyrinthine canyons and soft sand dunes. However, these geological formations on Titan are made up of completely different materials. Instead of water, liquid methane flows through the rivers, and instead of sand, hydrocarbons blow into the dunes.

For many years, scientists could not understand how these landscapes formed, given their unearthly composition. But now they’ve identified a very plausible theory.

Since the deposits of Titan are assumed to be composed of solid organic compounds, they must be much more brittle than the silicate-based deposits found on Earth. Thus, the nitrogen wind and liquid methane should turn Titan’s deposits into fine dust that cannot support such diverse structures.

Related: Dazzling views reveal the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan like never before

A team led by Mathieu Lapota, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Stanford University, came up with a potential solution: A combination of sintering, wind and seasonal changes could help on Titan.

The researchers studied a type of sediment, called ooids, that can be found on Earth and have a composition similar to that of Titan.

Ooids can be found in tropical waters where they form very small grains. These grains simultaneously accumulate material through chemical precipitation and break down in the sea. As a result, they maintain a constant size.

Researchers believe that something similar could be happening on Titan.

“We hypothesized that sintering, in which adjacent grains fuse together, could balance abrasion when grains are carried by wind,” Lappel said in a statement.

The team then analyzed atmospheric data from Titan recorded during the Cassini mission to determine how these deposits could have formed such vastly different geological features observed around the planet.

The researchers found that the winds were more prevalent around the Moon’s equator, which created optimal conditions for dune development. Elsewhere, however, the team suspects that lighter winds allowed coarser grains and, in turn, harder sediments to form. From there, the wind can break the harder rock into thinner deposits, just as it does on Earth.

Additionally, since Titan is known to be the only celestial body in our solar system other than Earth to have a seasonal fluid transport cycle, Laposta’s team hypothesized that the movement of liquid methane likely also contributes to erosion and sedimentation.

“We show that on Titan – just like on Earth and Mars – we have an active sedimentation cycle that can explain the latitudinal distribution of landscapes through episodic abrasion and sintering driven by Titan’s seasons,” Lappel said. . “It’s very exciting to think that this alternate world exists so far away, where things are so different, but so similar.”

The hypothesis was published in Geophysical Research Letters on April 1st.

Follow Stefanie Waldek on Twitter @StefanieWaldek. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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