Cassini Spacecraft Finds Subsurface Ocean on Saturn Moon

Data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed Saturn’s moon Titan most likely harbors a layer of vast liquid water under its ice shell.

Researchers saw a significant amount of squeezing and stretching as the moon orbited Saturn. They deduced that if Titan were composed completely of stiff rock, the gravitational attraction of Saturn would result in bulges, or solid “tides,” on the moon only 3 feet (1 meter) in height. Spacecraft data show Saturn creates solid tides approximately 30 feet (10 meters) in height, which suggests Titan is not made completely of solid rocky material. The finding appears in today’s edition of the journal Science.

“Cassini’s detection of huge tides on Titan leads to the practically inescapable conclusion that there is a hidden ocean at depth,” mentioned Luciano Iess, the paper’s lead author and a Cassini team member at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. “The search for water is an important aim in solar system exploration, and now we’ve spotted another place where it is abundant.”

Titan requires only 16 days to orbit Saturn, and scientists were in a position to study the moon’s shape at diverse parts of its orbit. Simply because Titan is not spherical, but slightly elongated like a football, its long axis grew when it was closer to Saturn. Eight days later, when Titan was farther from Saturn, it became much less elongated and a lot more almost round. Cassini measured the gravitational effect of that squeeze and pull.

Scientists were not sure Cassini would be able to detect the bulges caused by Saturn’s pull on Titan. By studying six close flybys of Titan from Feb. 27, 2006, to Feb. 18, 2011, researchers were able to determine the moon’s internal structure by measuring variations in the gravitational pull of Titan using data returned to NASA’s Deep Space Network(DSN).


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