Ever since the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn to explore it, scientists have been curious about various geological and other features of Saturn’s moon Titan. Now a group of researchers, using Cassini’s data, have discovered a mysterious ice patch which stretches nearly half way around the middle of Saturn’s moon Titan, beneath its many layers of haze.
Researchers who noted the discovery can’t decide on which geological feature this mysterious ice patch may represent, but it belongs to a dataset gathered by the Cassini spacecraft, which unveiled Saturn’s secrets for 13 years before plunging into the gas giant’s atmosphere in September 2017.
“It’s a good example of how we’re doing really well at continuing to mine these amazing Cassini data for new results,” Jani Radebaugh, a planetary scientist at Brigham Young University who wasn’t involved in the new research, told Space.com. “We’re far from being finished with understanding Titan to the degree we can with Cassini.”
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There are many differences between Earth’s moon and Saturn’s moon Titan. Aside from being nearly 50% larger, Titan has an atmosphere rich in nitrogen as well as traces of methane, hydrogen and other gases which can make up an atmosphere. It’s worth noting that Titan often experiences rain of liquid organic components. Titan is extremely cold, boasting -290 degrees Fahrenheit on its surface. Also, due to its thick atmosphere, the moon receives only 0.1% of light compared to what Earth gets.
“What we’re curious about is, beyond that global gentle snowfall of organics, what’s happening?” Radebaugh told Space.com. “It can be really hard to see through that layer to be able to see what’s going on.”
The research published in the journal Nature Astronomy uses principal component analysis, a method that allows researchers to catch small elements in the data, that might be impossible to spot with traditional methods, Space.com reports.
Radebaugh’s perspective suggests that this ice patch feature suggests that it could be the result of a massive cracking, which brought part of water-ice bedrock upwards, and then left it uncovered. If that’s the case, that would mean that researchers would be introduced to a new layer of Saturn’s moon Titan, which hasn’t been visible to scientists before.
However, researchers say that in order for them to learn more about the mysterious ice patch, more research will be required, particularly learning what caused the uncovered ice patch on the surface.
“It’s a big feature that tells us something about the way that Titan was in the past, but we don’t know really what it is,” lead author Caitlin Griffith, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona, told Space.com. “I think right now it’s basically telling us that it’s complicated, the surface is fairly complicated.”