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March 20, 2008

Underground ocean on Saturn's moon Titan

Posted: 04:01 PM ET

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has made yet another stunning find during its tour of Saturn and its moons...evidence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Titan.

Cassini image of Saturn’s A and F rings along with the tiny moon Epimetheus and the giant moon Titan. Source: NASA/JPL/Space Science Inst.

The new data was gathered using Cassini's Synthetic Aperture Radar during 19 flybys of Titan since late 2005. The spacecraft's optical cameras don't work so well with Titan because the moon actually has a thick atmosphere and appears constantly shrouded in a smoggy haze. But the radar can penetrate through that, and scientists were able to map out the location of 50 "landmarks" like lakes, canyons and mountains.

There is just one problem: the landmarks appear to be shifting around, sometimes by as much as 19 miles from their expected location.

What could explain it? Writing in the journal Science, Cassini scientists say the most plausible answer is that the icy crust of the moon is moving around on top of an internal ocean.

A decade ago, scientists working with the Galileo spacecraft on its mission to the Jupiter system concluded from magnetic field data that the moon Europa also harbors a salty ocean under its ice sheets. They think Europa's ocean could be as close as 4.7 miles to the surface. The Cassini folks think Titan's ocean is deeper down, 62 miles beneath the ice and ground.

Of course, where there is water, astrobiologists will be interested in looking for life Titan almost certainly just bumped up a few notches in their estimation.

Cassini deployed a probe called Huygens that actually landed on Titan back in 2005, sending back these remarkable pictures from the surface. Titan has long fascinated planetary scientists because of its high concentration of organic chemicals like methane and ethane. They say conditions there are similar in many ways to those on Earth billions of years ago, before life began here. Study of Titan could better help researchers understand how the early Earth evolved.

–Kate Tobin, Senior Producer, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: NASA • Saturn • Space • Titan

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Jess123   March 21st, 2008 10:05 am ET

Wow, I can't believe that Saturn's moon Titan has an ocean!!!

James Buchanan   March 22nd, 2008 8:10 am ET

Its a little late in the game getting on the list.

Europa and Ganymeade were discovered to have'em years ago.

The interesting thing about Titan, the water there serves a function more comparable to what magma does on Earth. All those rocks near the Huygens landing site? Ice, frozen to a point where its harder than granite.

Fun place, if you've got antifreeze for blood.

José Inácio de Freitas Filho   March 22nd, 2008 3:44 pm ET

I guess we all must to consider this fact: othrer planets requires other life ways, forms etc.? The same must be truth on the "rest of the universe".
So, why we are always searching life forms as the ours? I think we could change our perspective and "up great" it...
Inácio de Freitas [from Brasil].

people   March 23rd, 2008 12:27 pm ET

I think its really cool that science has come so far that we can send spacecrafts to saturn and figure out the ocean beneath the surface. I think that this discovery will help scientists figure out how earth has evolved and continue to change over millions of years.

Hunter Waite   March 23rd, 2008 6:07 pm ET

James, so what is the relevance of NASA's mission exploration priority in this context. Titan had an ocean long ago also -why does it matter if we just discovered it? The surface of Titan and Ganymede are also frozen to the point that they are harder than granite. What is th point of your comment? Antifreeze is necessary throughout the outer solar system, but that does not deter robotic spacecraft from exploring.

Titan is extremely rich in organics – the other astrobiological necessity. Don't rule it out without a closer look.

Mr. Spock   March 23rd, 2008 10:45 pm ET

Some questions should be answered, if Titan has and internal ocean, what is sustaining it? Internal pressures, internal dynamic heating, or tidal flexing from Saturn's gravity? Does Titan have an active core, and since Titan is very planet-sized for a moon, does it have its own magnetic field?

Oceans discovered on Saturn’s moon Titan « exploring our world   March 25th, 2008 1:14 pm ET

[...] Here's an interesting post on CNN's Sci-Tech blog. [...]

Mr. Spock   March 28th, 2008 4:27 am ET

Ever notice the similarities between Titan and Venus? Both have thick atmospheres and surrounded by sun-blocking clouds. Venus is 900 degrees on the surface, while Titan is -300 F. What is making Titan so cold? Why is it that scientists' reason for the sky on Earth being blue is because of nitrogen rayleigh scattering, when 95% of the atmosphere on Titan is nitrogen, yet the sky is orange? I don't buy the Uranus Neptune color argument either. They both have large amounts of hydrogen and helium and some methane, but one is aquamarine, the other blue, why is this?

Darel   April 22nd, 2009 10:27 am ET

Ididn't know that titan had an underground ocean

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