JUN 19, 2024 1:50 PM PDT

Significance of Wave Activity for Understanding Titan's Climate

Lakes and seas of liquid methane exist on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, due to the moon’s bone-chilling cold temperatures at -290 degrees Fahrenheit (-179 degrees Celsius), whereas it can only exist as a gas on Earth. But do these lakes and seas of liquid methane strewn across Titan’s surface remain static, or do they exhibit wave activity like the lakes and seas of liquid water on Earth? This is what a recent study published in Science Advances hopes to address as a team of researchers have investigated coastal shoreline erosion on Titan’s surface resulting from wave activity. This study holds the potential to help researchers better understand the formation and evolution of planetary surfaces throughout the solar system and how well they relate to Earth.

For the study, the researchers used a combination of shoreline analogs on Earth, orbital images obtained by NASA’s now-retired Cassini spacecraft, coastal evolution models, and several mathematical equations to ascertain the processes responsible for shoreline morphology across Titan’s surface. Through this, the researchers were able to construct coastal erosion models depicting how wave activity could be responsible for changes in shoreline morphology at numerous locations across Titan’s surface.

“We can say, based on our results, that if the coastlines of Titan’s seas have eroded, waves are the most likely culprit,” said Dr. Taylor Perron, who is a Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author on the study. “If we could stand at the edge of one of Titan’s seas, we might see waves of liquid methane and ethane lapping on the shore and crashing on the coasts during storms. And they would be capable of eroding the material that the coast is made of.”

While NASA’s Cassini mission ended in 2017 after the spacecraft was intentionally burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere, scientists have spent the last seven years poring over troves of data Cassini obtained about Saturn’s largest moon, which is also the second-largest moon in the solar system (Ganymede being the largest). It is due to this research that Titan continues to be a target for future astrobiology missions, including NASA’s upcoming Dragonfly mission, which will be a quadcopter designed to “hop” around Titan’s surface searching for signs of potential habitability.

What new discoveries about Titan's lakes and seas will researchers make in the coming years and decades? Only time will tell, and this is why we science!

As always, keep doing science & keep looking up!

Sources: NASA, Science Advances, EurekAlert!, NASA (1)

Featured Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Kevin M. Gill

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Laurence Tognetti is a six-year USAF Veteran who earned both a BSc and MSc from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Laurence is extremely passionate about outer space and science communication, and is the author of "Outer Solar System Moons: Your Personal 3D Journey".
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