Peeking Through the Haze: A Look at Titan’s Bright Surface Features


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Title: Compositional Similarities and Distinctions Between Titan’s Evaporitic Terrains
Authors: S.M. MacKenzie and Jason W. Barnes
First Author’s Institution: University of Idaho
Status: Published in ApJ, open access

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is the only solar system object other than the Earth to have a thick atmosphere and standing surface liquid. When the Cassini spacecraft began observing Titan, it even discovered lakes and seas dotting the northern hemisphere. Don’t fire up your rocket just yet, though — because Titan is so cold, the lakes and seas are filled with liquid methane and ethane rather than water.


Artist’s illustration of the Cassini mission at Saturn. [NASA]

Titan’s thick, methane-rich atmosphere makes it difficult to observe the surface at visible wavelengths. Luckily, there are several windows in the near-infrared through which light can pass and reveal the surface. Seven of these windows overlap with the wavelength range covered by Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS). By looking at how the brightness of the surface changes with wavelength, we can learn about the composition of the surface material. The cover photo above depicts a three-color map of Titan’s surface made with VIMS. The pinkish regions show where the surface reflects strongly at 5 microns.

The 5-micron-bright regions are found circling lakes in the northern hemisphere, in dry lake beds in both hemispheres, and in the desert-like equatorial regions. The bright rings around the lakes are believed to be evaporites—solid material left behind after the liquid in which it was dissolved evaporates. This explains the presence of the bright material surrounding the lakes and the dry lake beds, but what about the desert? Linking 5-micron-bright regions in what is today a desert to the bright rings around the lakes could provide evidence that the equatorial regions of Titan were once covered with liquid.

In this paper, the authors searched for a compositional link between the bright regions in the desert and the evaporites around the lakes and seas. They used an absorption feature at 4.92 microns in order to investigate whether or not the 5-micron-bright material in each of these regions is the same. The 4.92-micron absorption feature has been observed previously in the desert region, but no one has been able to definitively say what compound causes it. Because of this, finding the same feature in the desert and around the lakes can indicate that the regions are geologically similar, but can’t yet tell us about the chemical makeup of the material.

VIMS data

A non-projected version of the VIMS map of Titan shown above. [JPL/NASA/Univ. of Arizona/CNRS/LPGNantes]

The authors used Principal Component Analysis (PCA) to isolate the weak 4.92-micron absorption feature. PCA is a mathematical method that separates the individual components that make up an observed signal. In this case, the main contributors to the signal (i.e. the “principal components”) could be changes in the surface reflectivity, instrumental noise, or compositional variations. Once the components have been separated, the unwanted contributors can be removed. As a result, PCA can be used to isolate a signal that is much smaller than the background noise. (PCA is also used in the direct detection of exoplanets and is described in more detail here.) After applying PCA, the authors observed the 4.92-micron absorption feature in both the desert and around the lakes, strengthening the hypothesis that the desert once had liquid. However, they also found that not all of the lake regions had the absorption feature, and some of the regions that did have it didn’t have it in every observation. They suggested that material with a crystalline structure that reflects light more strongly at some angles or transient effects like methane rain could cause the absorption feature to appear intermittently.

What causes some lake regions to have the absorption feature while others don’t? The authors suggested that the material that causes the 4.92-micron absorption feature could be just one of several solids that are left behind as the lakes evaporate away. Whether or not a lake rim has the absorption feature could be a function of how far the evaporation has progressed. As evaporation proceeds, materials that are more soluble precipitate out in sequence. We could see a 5-micron-bright evaporite ring without the absorption feature if the lake hasn’t evaporated enough for the material causing the absorption to precipitate out. The authors even have a suggestion for why this might happen to some lakes in the northern hemisphere but not others—lakes closest to the north pole might experience more methane rainfall than more southern lagoons, periodically halting the evaporation before the absorbing material can crystallize.

Although the authors posit many explanations for the mysterious behavior of the 4.92-micron absorption feature, they can’t yet settle on one cause. It’s not surprising that Titan, an inhospitable but strangely familiar world with complex geology and weather systems, presents a challenge to astronomers. In the future, by modeling how Titan’s climate changes over time, we can hope to learn more about what causes the distribution of evaporites on Titan’s surface.

About the author, Kerrin Hensley:

I am a second year graduate student at Boston University, where I study the upper atmospheres and ionospheres of Venus and Mars. I’m especially interested in how the ionospheres of these planets change as the Sun proceeds through its solar activity cycle and what this can tell us about the ionospheres of planets around other stars. Outside of grad school, you can find me rock climbing, drawing, or exploring Boston.