NASA’s Cassini spacecraft identified for the first time liquid methane that flows through Titan canyons. Titan is Saturn’s largest moon. A fluid that behaves similarly to water on Earth would demonstrate the existence of microbial life in Titan, researchers suggested.

The new findings were published on Wednesday in Geophysical Research Letters. They show the vast dark blue oceans that exist on the surface of Titan. There are lakes and seas near Titan’s poles, especially in the North. This is the first time that a liquid is found on the surface of a rocky world. However, this is not the first time that scientists find water on a moon. Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa also have water.

Seas and oceans flow under those moons, while in the case of Titan, they flow on the surface. Image credit: NASA

Titan’s lakes and seas are not made of water, even though they are blue. Instead, they are full of methane, a fuel that can only exist on Earth as a gas. Titan is a cold world, with temperatures of minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Methane can be a liquid in that environment, while water is frozen hard.

Titan is so big that it would be considered another planet if it were not orbiting Saturn. It is more massive than Pluto, and it is larger in diameter than Mercury. It also has the second-thickest atmosphere of the rocky worlds in our solar system.

What amazed scientists the most is how similar this moon is to our planet. Rosaly Lopes, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, stated that even though there are fundamental differences, the geology of both worlds are very alike, Los Angeles Times reports. Lopes has studied Titan for years, but she is not involved in the study.

What was the dark material flowing through Titan’s Canyons?

Cassini mission started in 2004 when the European Huygens probe detached from Cassini. The probe landed on Titan in early 2005 and later discovered what could be frozen water. European Huygens found in Titan surface something similar to water stones that are common in cold rivers on Earth.

In 2012, Cassini located a methane river of 249 miles, called Vid Flumina. It drains into Titan’s second-largest sea, Ligeia Mare. Researchers found something near Vid Flumina  that resembled canyons. They could not determine if something was flowing through them.

“These images from the Radar instrument aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft show the evolution of a transient feature in the large hydrocarbon sea named Ligeia Mare on Saturn’s moon Titan,” said NASA. Image credit: NASA.

It is hard to identify if there was liquid among the canyons or if it was methane because images could be showing a shadowing effect, or something entirely different, like a light-absorbing material filling the channels.

Scientists also had to consider that is common that fluids create canyons on Earth, but because this is a moon in a far place in the solar system, the geological phenomenon could be entirely different.

NASA researchers used Cassini instruments, including radars, to collect data about Titan’s surface. The instrument sought to discover how solid were the parts of the surface they were analyzing.

They found that the canyons were indeed carved by a flowing liquid that turned out to be methane that drained into Vid Flumina. The instruments determined that Titan’s canyon walls may be 1,870 feet deep and could rise at least 40 degrees.

According to Los Angeles Time, the study authors stated that it is crucial to understand the processes that led to the formation of Titan’s hydrological features to appreciate the moon’s evolution and its present geomorphology. For researchers, it is necessary that any model of Titan’s polar landscape is capable of explaining what phenomenon led to those hundred meter deep canyons.

Titan: the best chance so far to find life on another planet

Titan has methane in its oceans instead of water, but the liquid hydrocarbons have a similar behavior to H2O in our planet. Methane on Titan freezes, melts, evaporates, and it can be condensed onto yellow clouds that bring methane rain.

Saturn’s largest moon has storms and seasons, and its weather is similar to the Earth’s. Any human would die in Titan’s temperatures and its full-of-methane atmosphere.

@CassiniSaturn: “#Saturn is beautiful even without the rings, as seen in this false-color view of its clouds.” Image credit: NASA

But methane is still made of organic molecules, meaning that microbial life could develop on the giant moon. If life is found, it would be very different to what we know or imagine because it will not survive on H2O nor oxygen.

Lopes says that Titan is the most likely place to find new forms of life, which would be very different to organisms on Earth. The geologist said that Titan is an interesting place to study for new life, but more research needs to be done.

Source: Los Angeles Times