Scientists have, for the first time, confirmed the existence of an unearthly lake in the solar system. Using an instrument on the Cassini orbiter, the scientists have mapped a “lake-like feature” on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The feature is approximately 150 miles (235km) long and is in the south polar region of the moon.
“We know the lake is liquid because it reflects essentially no light at 5-micron wavelengths."
Unlike earthly lakes, however, the newly discovered lake on Titan is composed of hydrocarbons, including ethane and methane, along with nitrogen. Intriguingly, Cassini investigator Robert Brown explains how the team knew the feature was a lake:
“We know the lake is liquid because it reflects essentially no light at 5-micron wavelengths. It was hard for us to accept the fact that the feature was so black when we first saw it. More than 99.9 percent of the light that reaches the lake never gets out again. For it to be that dark, the surface has to be extremely quiescent, mirror smooth. No naturally produced solid could be that smooth.”
Although the discovery confirms previous hypotheses that methane- and ethane-filled bodies of liquid exist on Titan, scientists had also previously thought Titan may have entire hydrocarbon oceans, produced by the action of UV light on Titan’s methane atmosphere over a supposed 4.5 billion years. Cassini’s investigations show that no such oceans exist, however, and it appears that even this lake is evaporating.
The probe’s measurements also “rule out the presence of water ice, ammonia, ammonia hydrate, and carbon dioxide” in the lake.
Titan and its hydrocarbon-heavy atmosphere have long been subjects of interest for astrobiologists, and further research into the planet will likely continue to be centered around the possibility of finding signs of life. The byproduct, of course, is getting a glimpse into a very strange place indeed!
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