Science & Technology

Surprise! Saturn's Moon Titan Has an Ice Corridor Thousands of Miles Long

A moon of Saturn has a weird geological feature that's puzzling scientists — a huge strip of ice known as an ice corridor that stretches around the planet for nearly 4,000 miles. It's not too clear how it got there, but one thing is for sure: Titan is always stranger than we expect.

What Is Titan?

Titan is a moon that's really exciting for those involved in the search for life, actually. It likely has a global ocean lurking under its surface. It also has elements on the surface that are precursor elements to life, known as organic materials. It even has lakes made of methane and ethane — a weird environment, but fun to study.

The moon is so interesting to scientists that back in 2005, they sent a little probe to the surface (Huygens) to take images as it descended. And from above, the Cassini spacecraft kept a watchful eye on Titan throughout its whole mission, which lasted from 2004 to 2017.

Cassini is dead, but its data lives on. This weird ice feature actually came to light when a research team led by Caitlin Griffith at the University of Arizona was looking for ice volcanoes in old Cassini information. They sure found ice, but it wasn't in a way that anyone expected. "This icy corridor is puzzling, because it doesn't correlate with any surface features nor measurements of the subsurface," Griffith said in a statement. Her work is published in Nature Astronomy.

A near-infrared color image of Titan’s north pole, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

What Does This Mean?

It's really, really weird that this ice feature is there. It's even weirder that it's so prominent, stretching across about 40 percent of Titan's circumference. Why wasn't it buried under organic materials? Even the scientists aren't sure, saying that this could be a leftover feature from when Titan was a much different environment than today.

What's interesting, though, is that the ice is eroding. It's not uniformly distributed along the corridor. Underneath lies organic materials, perhaps hidden to the outside world for quite some time. It's too bad we can't just send a spacecraft there tomorrow and scoop beneath the surface, isn't it?

Titan is just one of a number of icy moons in our outer solar system that could be compatible with life. In the 2020s and 2030s, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to send spacecraft to the Jupiter system, which includes the possible ocean worlds of Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto; another large world, Io, even has volcanoes on its surface. Not good for life per se, but good for us to do comparative volcanic studies.

Even around Saturn, Titan is not alone in being a potentially life-friendly world. Enceladus is a famous moon known for having more than 100 geysers that spout water (and organic molecules) into space. Faraway Pluto, which has no apparent source of heat besides the distant sun, has a possible global ocean underneath its surface. And we haven't even talked about Mars, that close-by planet that may have past or present life on it.

Lesson learned: Life could be everywhere around us. Future explorers should tread carefully.

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Learn more about the residents of our solar system in "Solar System: An Exploration of the Bodies that Orbit the Sun" by Marcus Chown. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Elizabeth Howell May 2, 2019

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