"Saturn's Titan: Surface Change, Ammonia, and Implications for Atmospheric and Tectonic Activity."

Before the Cassini-Huygens mission began bringing back crucial data about Saturn and its largest moon, Titan, scientists knew very little about the nature of Titan or its hazy atmosphere. It was thought of as a "pre-biotic Earth, frozen in time."

But now, Cassini instruments have provided tantalizing evidence that Titan is currently geologically active, recording what could be a large area where icy ammonia fog vents from the interior and falls to the local surface. The finding indicates that Titan continues to replenish its atmosphere today by outgassing ammonia, which serves as a source for the satellite's nitrogen-dominated atmosphere.

Scientists who recently authored the paper "Saturn's Titan: Surface Change, Ammonia, and Implications for Atmospheric and Tectonic Activity," conclude that distinct changes have occurred on or near the ground over a 73,000 square kilometer-area viewed by Cassini's Visual Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) several times over a two-year period. The area in question - twice as large as Hawaii's Big Island -- was found to repeatedly grow and diminish in brightness from 2004-2006.

The region in question is also comparable to the large volcano, Loki, on Jupiter's Io. "If the entire reflective region is part of the activity, its size is of Krakatoan proportions," says lead author Robert M. Nelson of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "This may be the largest active surface region in the solar system."

VIMS image of Titan from the T9 data set.
VIMS image of Titan from the T9 data set. Here, unlike Fig. 1, the image is shown without projection to the observational perspective of the T0 observations. The region of changing brightness is indicated with yellow fiducial marks; the tropospheric cloud is indicated by red fiducial marks.

Earlier studies provide evidence for ammonia mixed with water in a liquid layer below Titan's water-ice surface. Given such a layer, it is possible that ammonia, alone or mixed with water, may be vented through deep-seated volcanism, or via a diapir that taps the liquid layer, or by more localized geysering of ammonia-rich deposits in the crust. Ammonia decomposes into nitrogen. Ongoing episodes of ammonia venting from the interior could be feeding nitrogen into Titan's atmosphere now and in the future. Titan now joins Earth, Io, Triton, Enceladus, probably Venus, and possibly Europa as the small community of planetary objects in the solar system that exhibit active volcanic processes. Most significantly, these findings could shed light on how Earth's nitrogen-rich atmosphere evolved. In summary, the results also cause the scientists to ask 'Are the chemical processes happening on Titan today the best approximation among the planets to the processes under which life evolved on Earth?'

Reference: "Saturn's Titan: Surface Change, Ammonia, and Implications for Atmospheric and Tectonic Activity." Icarus, August 4, 2008

Scientists: R..M. Nelson, L.W. Kamp, D.L.Matson (JPL); PG.J. Irwin (Clarendon Lab, U.K.); K.H. Baines (JPL); M.D. Boryta Mt. San Antonio Coll.); F.E. Leader (JPL); R. Jaumann (Inst. for Planetary Exploration, Germany); W.D. Smythe (JPL) C. Sotin (U. Nantes); R. N. Clark (USGS Denver); D.P. Cruikshank (NASA Ames);P. Drossart (Obs. de Paris-Meudon); J.C. Pearl (NASA Goddard); B.W. Hapke (U of Pittsburgh); J. Lunine (U of AZ); M. Combes (Obs. de Paris); G. Bellucci (Inst. di Astrofisica Spaziale, Rome); J.-P. Bibring (Univ. de Paris Sud-Orsay); f. Capaccioni, P. Cerroni, A. Coradini, V. Formisano, G. Filacchione (Instit. Di Astrofisica Spaziale); R. Y. Langevin (Univ. de Paris Sud-Orsay); T. B McCord (U of WA); V. Mennella (Oservatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte); P.D. Nicholson (Cornell U.); B. Sicardy (Obs. de Paris-Meudon)