Science Channel - InSCIder

19 Mar

If There Are Waves On Saturn Moon Titan, Are We Closer To Finding Extraterrestrial Life?

It's been a big week for space news and findings presented Monday at the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference could make a huge splash -- almost literally.

Images captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during flybys of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, appear to show waves on the surface of Punga Mare, one of the biggest lakes on the moon.

"If correct this discovery represents the first sea-surface waves known outside of Earth," the report's authors write. "That they have previously been undetected and are now evident is consistent with the Lorenz et al. hypothesis that winds had previously been low due to seasonal cycles but are picking up as northern spring develops."

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Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS

Unusual glimmers of sunlight may have been the key to the conclusion. As Universe Today explains:

"Variations in specular highlights in four pixels observed in the surface of Punga Mare by Cassini’s VIMS (Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) have been interpreted by the team as being the result of waves — or, perhaps more accurately, ripples, seeing as that they are estimated to be a mere 2 centimeters in height."

Presenting his team's findings at the conference, planetary scientist Jason Barnes joked, "Don't make your surfing vacation reservations for Titan just yet." For one, the waves were just a few centimeters high; in addition, as Nature points out, there's "still a chance that Cassini is seeing reflections off a wet, solid surface, such as a mudflat, rather than actual waves."

NASA has compared Titan to "early Earth in a deep freeze" and called the moon "one of the most Earth-like worlds we have found to date," so what does the discovery of potential waves mean for the search for extraterrestrial life?

Earlier this month, Cassini mission scientist Jonathan Lunine sounded hopeful as the craft marked its 100th flyby of Titan:

"Methane is not only in the atmosphere, but probably in the crust. It’s a hint there are organics not only in Titan’s air and on the surface, but even in the deep interior, where liquid water exists as well. Organics are the building blocks of life, and if they are in contact with liquid water, there could be a chance of finding some form of life."

Want to learn more about Titan? Here's a look inside its core as modeled on Earth:

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