It was in 2012 that Cassini data showed us the presence of the river system now called Vid Flumina, which empties into Titan’s Ligeia Mare after a journey of more than 400 kilometers. Given surface temperatures on this largest of Saturn’s moons, researchers assumed liquid methane would be the key player here. The question was whether the river — and the eight canyons that branched off from it along its course — were still filled with liquid or long dry.
Now we have the answer, thanks to new work from Valerio Poggiali (La Sapienza University, Rome) and colleagues. Using radar signals bounced off Titan’s surface in May of 2013, the researchers probed the deep gorges near Titan’s north pole and were able to distinguish rocky material from smooth liquid. We’re clearly looking at a surface that is actively eroding, one with striking comparisons to the landscapes of Utah and Arizona as well as the Nile River gorge.
Key to the work here is the use of Cassini’s radar as an altimeter, measuring the height of features on the surface. Poggiali and team were able to use the altimetry data in combination with previous radar imagery of the area to analyze the Vid Flamina channels. Radar returns from the channels are highly reflective, producing a telltale glint, and the radar backscatter in relation to nearby terrain implicates smooth surfaces. From the paper:
…we interpret these smoothness constraints as requiring liquid surfaces. This represents the first direct detection of liquid-filled channels on Titan. Furthermore, channels exhibit canyon-like morphology, with the liquid surface elevations of the higher-order tributaries of the Vid Flumina network…occurring at the same elevation as Ligeia Mare. We also find lower order tributaries with liquid surface elevations above the level of Ligeia Mare, consistent with elevated tributary networks feeding into the main channel system.
The canyons branching off from Vid Flumina are less than a kilometer wide, with walls as high as 570 meters. They were likely carved by the liquid methane as it drained into Vid Flumina, a process we see on Earth in the shaping of river gorges. These are steep walls, rising as sharply as 40 degrees. What remains unknown is the age of the processes at work here, and the depth of the liquid methane. What we can assume is that the presence of liquid in these canyons reflects a process of canyon formation that is ongoing on this active geological surface.
Image: Liquid methane and ethane flowing through Vid Flumina, a 400-kilometer long river often compared to Earth’s Nile River, is fed by canyon channels running hundreds of meters deep. Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana.
Such steep clefts in Titan’s landscape could be the result of several processes including terrain uplift and changes in sea level. This JPL news release draws comparisons with the Grand Canyon, where rising terrain caused the Colorado River to cut deeply into the landscape below over a timespan of several million years. But canyons formed from changes in water level are also found on Earth, as is evident at Lake Powell, a reservoir that straddles the border between Arizona and Utah. Here, the Colorado’s rate of erosion increases when the water level in the reservoir drops. On Titan, both process may be in play.
“It’s likely that a combination of these forces contributed to the formation of the deep canyons,” says Poggiali, “but at present it’s not clear to what degree each was involved. What is clear is that any description of Titan’s geological evolution needs to be able to explain how the canyons got there.”
Image: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft pinged the surface of Titan with microwaves, finding that some channels are deep, steep-sided canyons filled with liquid hydrocarbons. One such feature is Vid Flumina, the branching network of narrow lines in the upper-left quadrant of the image. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI.
We have other channels to study on Titan, and many may be hidden below the resolution of the Cassini instruments. But bear in mind as well that when the Cassini mission ends on September 15 of next year, we will have used its radar in imaging mode to cover a total area of 67 percent of the surface. That’s a triumph for the mission, but also a reminder of how much we leave unseen. No matter how successful the mission, it always points to what needs study next.
The paper is Poggiali et al., “Liquid-filled canyons on Titan,” published online by Geophysical Research Letters 9 August 2016 (abstract).