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NASA Finds Liquid-Filled Earth-Like Canyons On Saturn’s Moon

One of NASA’s deep space probes has made a surprising discovery during a geologic survey of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons. While orbiting Saturn, the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft found steep-sided canyons stretched across Titan’s surface, the bottoms of which are flowing with deep channels of liquid hydrocarbons.

Titan (bottom left) compared to Earth (right) and Earth's moon (top left).

Titan (bottom left) compared to Earth (right) and Earth’s moon (top left).

These channel systems have been named the Vid Flumina and are between roughly 800 and 1,800 feet deep (240 to 570 meters). According to the recent Cassini data published in Geophysical Research Letters, this new finding could shed new light on Titan’s geologic history:

Our study reports the first direct detection and characterization of liquid-filled canyons on Titan. Understanding the processes that led to the formation of such hydrological features will be crucial in understanding the evolution and the present state of Titan’s geomorphology.

Titan's hydrocarbon-filled channels can be seen in this NASA composite photograph.

Titan’s hydrocarbon-filled channels can be seen in this NASA composite photograph.

This new research began in 2004 when the Cassini probe entered orbit around Saturn and began collecting data on the ringed planet and her many moons. While Cassini previously discovered lakes filled with liquid hydrocarbons on Titan in 2014, this new evidence of liquid channels shows either that sea levels on Titan changed rapidly at some point in the moon’s history, or that some type of tectonic activity caused a sudden uplift in Titan’s icy, rocky surface.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is 50% larger than Earth's moon.

Titan’s surface is composed of water ice, rock, and both frozen and liquid hydrocarbons.

The geological features of Titan’s Vid Flumina canyons share some of the same geologic and hydrologic characteristics of those found in Earth’s Grand Canyon. Alex Hayes of Cornell University, one of the co-authors of the study and a Cassini research team member, told Phys.org that the similarity between Titan’s and Earth’s canyons is striking:

Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane. And yet it’s remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds.

Other than the similarity of their canyons, Titan and Earth share many characteristics. Titan’s surface is marked with dunes, seas, rivers, and mountain ranges. Titan experiences seasons similar to those on Earth, and analogous water cycles can be found on both celestial bodies. Despite these similarities, Titan is likely unsuitable for human colonization due to the extremely cold temperatures (−179.2 °C/−290.56 °F) and atmosphere comprised of poisonous gasses such as methane and nitrogen.