Titan’s Lapping Oil Waves

Titan’s Lapping Oil Waves

When the European Huygens probe on the Cassini space mission parachutes down through the opaque smoggy atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan early next year, it may find itself splashing into a sea of liquid hydrocarbons.

In what is probably the first piece of "extraterrestrial oceanography" ever carried out, Dr Nadeem Ghafoor of Surrey Satellite Technology and Professor John Zarnecki of the Open University, with Drs Meric Srokecz and Peter Challenor of the Southampton Oceanography Centre, calculated how any seas on Titan would compare with Earth’s oceans. Their results predict that waves driven by the wind would be up to 7 times higher but would move more slowly and be much farther apart.

The team worked with a computer simulation, or ‘model’, that predicts how wind-driven waves on the surface of the sea are generated on Earth, but they changed all the basic inputs, such as the local gravity, and the properties of the liquid, to values they might expect on Titan.

Europa
The haze of an atmospheric layer on Saturn’s moon, Titan. With an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s, and composed of many biochemically interesting molecules (methane, hydrogen and carbon), Titan’s rich chemistry will continue to interest astrobiologists as they look forward to landing a probe on its surface in 2004-5. Credit: Voyager Project, JPL, NASA

Arguments about the nature of Titan’s surface have raged for a number of years. Following the flyby of the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1980, some researchers suggested that Titan’s concealed surface might be at least partly covered by a sea of liquid methane and ethane. But there are several other theories, ranging from a hard icy surface at one extreme to a near-global hydrocarbon ocean at the other. Other variants include the notion of hydrocarbon ‘sludge’ overlying an icy surface. Planetary scientists hope that the Cassini/Huygens mission will provide an answer to this question, with observations from Cassini during several flybys of Titan and from Huygens, which will land (or ‘splash’) on 14 January 2005.

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Huygens parachutes onto Titan. ESA’s Huygens probe descends through Titan’s mysterious atmosphere to unveil the hidden surface (artist’s impression) Credit: ESA

The idea that Titan has significant bodies of surface liquid has recently been reinforced by the announcement that radar reflections from Titan have been detected using the giant Arecibo radio dish in Puerto Rico. Importantly, the returned signals in 12 out the 16 attempts made contained reflections of the kind expected from a polished surface, like a mirror. (This is similar to seeing a blinding patch of light on the surface of the sea where the Sun is being reflected.) The radar researchers concluded that 75% of Titan’s surface may be covered by ‘open bodies of liquid hydrocarbons’ — in other words, seas.

The exact nature of the reflected radar signal can be used to determine how smooth or choppy the liquid surface is. This interpretation says that the slope of the waves is typically less than 4 degrees, which is consistent with the predictions of the British scientists, who showed that the maximum possible slope of waves generated by wind speeds up to 7 mph would be 11 degrees.

"Hopefully ESA’s Huygens probe will end the speculation" says Dr Ghafoor. "Not only will this be by far the most remote soft landing of a spacecraft ever attempted but Huygens might become the first extraterrestrial boat if it does indeed land on a hydrocarbon lake or sea."

Although not designed specifically to survive landing or to float, the chances it will do so are reasonable. However, the link back to Earth from Huygens via Cassini, which will be flying past Titan and acting as a relay, will only last for a maximum of 2 hours. During this time, if the probe is floating on a sea, one of the 6 instruments Huygens is carrying, the Surface Science Package experiment, which is led by John Zarnecki, will be making oceanography measurements. Among the 9 sensors that it carries are ones that will measure the height and frequency of the waves and also the depth of the sea using sonar. It will also attempt to determine the composition of the sea.

huygens
Huygens landing probe to Saturn’s moon, Titan.
Image Credit: ESA

What would the sea look like?

"Huygens does carry a camera so it is possible we shall have some direct images," says Professor Zarnecki, "but let’s try to imagine that we are sitting onboard the probe after it has landed in a Titan ocean. What would we see? Well, the waves would be more widely dispersed than on Earth but they will be very much higher – mostly as a result of the fact that Titan gravity is only about 15% of that on Earth. So the surface around us would probably appear flat and deceptively calm, but in the distance we might see a rather tall, slow-moving wave advancing towards us — a wave that could overwhelm or sink us."

 


Related Web Pages

JIMO Science, JPL
Primordial Recipe: Spark and Stir
Saturn– JPL Cassini Main Page
Cassini Imaging Team
Voyager: Beyond the Great Beyond
Titan’s Oily Lake
Titan’s Icy Bedrock
Saturn– JPL Cassini Main Page
Alien Landers: Extreme Explorers Hall of Fame
Titan: Biological Birthplace?
Solar System Bodies: Titan (NASA JPL)
The Probe Mission (NASA JPL)
Why Titan? (ESA)