Skip to Content
Uncategorized

The Surprising Contents of Titan’s Lakes

The lakes on Titan have some surprising chemical contents, according to the latest data from the Cassini spacecraft.

One of the exotic attractions of Saturn’s moon Titan is the possibility that it has oceans and lakes, with waves and breakers not unlike those on Earth. In the 1990s, astronomers ruled out the possibility of a global ocean using radar measurements taken from Earth but the possibility of lakes remained. And sure enough, in 2005, the Cassini spacecraft spotted a large lake-like feature called Ontario Lacus near the south pole and has since spotted numerous smaller ones.

So what are these lakes made of? The conventional thinking is that the lakes must be made of a mixture of liquid ethane, methane and nitrogen. However, the amount of methane in the atmosphere makes it difficult to see in liquid form at ground level and only liquid ethane has been directly spotted in Ontario Lacus.

The only other way to infer the composition of the lakes is by creating a thermodynamic model of the atmosphere using spacecraft and laboratory data and theoretical calculations. And of course, data from Cassini is revolutionising these calculations.

Today, Daniel Cordier from the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Chimie de Rennes, France, et amis, present the latest take on the data. Their number crunching reveals that:

“the main constituents of the lakes are ethane ( 76-79%), propane (7-8%), methane (5-10%), hydrogen cyanide (2-3%), butene (1%), butane (1%) and acetylene (1%).”

That’s a rich and somewhat unexpected mix. But it’s also useful because it allows more detailed calculations about the role of liquid on the surface of Titan. “Our results provide the chemical data needed to compute the amount of deposition of various hydrocarbons and nitriles in fluvial valleys in the Titan’s midlatitudes,” says the team.

And that should allow planetary geologists to build and test a new generation of models that show how rivers and streams have carved the surface of Titan. Geologists will be waiting with baited breath. The differences as well as the similarities with the processes that occur on Earth should make fascinating reading.

Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/0911.1860: An Estimate of the Chemical Composition of Titan’s Lakes

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Our best illustrations of 2022

Our artists’ thought-provoking, playful creations bring our stories to life, often saying more with an image than words ever could.

How CRISPR is making farmed animals bigger, stronger, and healthier

These gene-edited fish, pigs, and other animals could soon be on the menu.

The Download: the Saudi sci-fi megacity, and sleeping babies’ brains

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology. These exclusive satellite images show Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway In early 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia announced The Line: a “civilizational revolution” that would house up…

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.