Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is an intriguing, alien world that’s covered in a thick atmosphere with abundant methane. With an average surface temperature of a brisk -297 degrees Fahrenheit (about 90 kelvins) and a diameter just less than half of Earth’s, Titan boasts methane clouds and fog, as well as rainstorms and plentiful lakes of liquid methane. It’s the only place in the solar system, other than Earth, that has large bodies of liquid on its surface. The origins of Titan’s methane clouds and fog, as well as rainstorms and plentiful lakes of liquid methane have been a puzzle to scientists.
Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a computer model of Titan’s atmosphere and methane cycle that, for the first time, explains many of these phenomena in a relatively simple and coherent way. The new model explains three baffling observations of Titan. One oddity was discovered in 2009, when researchers led by Caltech professor of planetary science Oded Aharonson found that Titan’s methane lakes tend to cluster around its poles—and noted that there are more lakes in the northern hemisphere than in the south.
Secondly, the areas at low latitudes, near Titan’s equator, are known to be dry, lacking lakes and regular precipitation. But when the Huygens probe landed on Titan in 2005, it saw channels carved out by flowing liquid—possibly runoff from rain. And in 2009, Caltech researchers discovered raging storms that may have brought rain to this supposedly dry region.
Finally, scientists uncovered a third mystery when they noticed that clouds observed over the past decade—during summer in Titan’s southern hemisphere—cluster around southern middle and high latitudes.
Scientists have proposed various ideas to explain these features, but their models either can’t account for all of the observations, or do so by requiring exotic processes, such as cryogenic volcanoes that spew methane vapor to form clouds. The Caltech researchers say their new computer model, on the other hand, can explain all these observations—and does so using relatively straightforward and fundamental principles of atmospheric circulation.
In Image above the Cassini spacecraft chronicles the change of seasons as it captures clouds concentrated near Titan’s equator. This picture consists of an average of three images taken using a filter sensitive to near-infrared light, which ‘see’ through Titan’s haze to its surface and lower atmosphere, plus an image in visible light.
“We have a unified explanation for many of the observed features,” says Tapio Schneider, the Frank J. Gilloon Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering. “It doesn’t require cryovolcanoes or anything esoteric.”
Schneider says the team’s simulations were able to reproduce the distribution of clouds that’s been observed—which was not the case with previous models. The new model also produces the right distribution of lakes. Methane tends to collect in lakes around the poles because the sunlight there is weaker on average, he explains. Energy from the sun normally evaporates liquid methane on the surface, but since there’s generally less sunlight at the poles, it’s easier for liquid methane there to accumulate into lakes.
But then why are there more lakes in the northern hemisphere? Schneider points out that Saturn’s slightly elongated orbit means that Titan is farther from the sun when it’s summer in the northern hemisphere. Kepler’s second law says that a planet orbits more slowly the farther it is from the sun, which means that Titan spends more time at the far end of its elliptical orbit, when it’s summer in the north.
As a result, the northern summer is longer than the southern summer. And since summer is the rainy season in Titan’s polar regions, the rainy season is longer in the north. Even though the summer rains in the southern hemisphere are more intense—triggered by stronger sunlight, since Titan is closer to the sun during southern summer—there’s more rain over the course of a year in the north, filling more lakes.