Scientists have successfully measured the height of waves in the liquid methane lakes on Saturn’s moon Titan. The height of the waves is about a centimetre high. Scientists say Titan’s environment is serene and it has calm lakes of liquid methane.
Now, this can potentially make it easier for future probes to make a smooth landing on the surface of the Saturn’s largest moon, said scientists. Titan is one of the locations in the solar system that is said to possess the ingredients necessary for life.
The photos captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows Titan as a smooth brown orb due to its thick atmosphere which is clouded with gaseous nitrogen and hydrocarbons.
However, the radar images from Cassini reveal that its surface crust is made of water ice and is drenched in liquid hydrocarbons.
Methane and ethane fall on Titan from the sky as rain. They fill the deep lakes that dot the surface and it is possible that they are spewed into the air by icy volcanoes called cryovolcanoes.
“There’s a lot of interest in one day sending probes to the lakes, and when that’s done, you want to have a safe landing, and you don’t want a lot of wind,” said Cyril Grima, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) in the US.
“Our study shows that because the waves aren’t very high, the winds are likely low,” said Grima, lead author of the research published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
“The atmosphere of Titan is very complex, and it does synthesise complex organic molecules - the bricks of life,” Grima said.
“It may act as a laboratory of sorts, where you can see how basic molecules can be transformed into more complex molecules that could eventually lead to life,” she said.
A technique was developed by the researchers for measuring surface roughness in minute detail from the radar data, called radar statistical reconnaissance. They then used it to measure the waves of Titan.
The researchers zeroed in on the three largest lakes in the northern hemisphere of Titan – Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare and Punga Mare. The Kraken Mare is the largest one and is estimated to be bigger than the Caspian Sea.
Researchers analysed the radar data collected by Cassini during Titan’s early summer season. They found that waves across these lakes are diminutive, reaching only about one centimetre high and 20 centimetres long.
“Cyril’s work is an independent measure of sea roughness and helps to constrain the size and nature of any wind waves,” said Alex Hayes, an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University in the US.
“From the results, it looks like we are right near the threshold for wave generation, where patches of the sea are smooth and patches are rough,” Hayes said.
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It is important for the scientists to collect information about the climate of Titan so that they can send a probe safely to its surface. Although there are no formal plans for a mission, Grima said that there are plenty of concepts being developed by researchers around the world.
If a future mission lands in early summer, there’s a good chance that it is in for a smooth landing, the study indicates.