Saturn’s moon Titan is ‘weirdly Earth-like’ say scientists after discovery of methane ‘rivers’ shaping its surface

It is well known that Earth is unique as the  only planet in the solar sytem which can sustain life.

But in other respects, our planet may not be  quite as unusually as is often thought.

Astronomers studying Titan, Saturn’s largest  moon, have described it as ‘a weirdly Earth-like place’ when it comes to  geology.

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Landscape: The surface of Titan is shaped by 'rivers' and 'lakes' of methane
Landscape: The surface of Titan is shaped by ‘rivers’  and ‘lakes’ of methane

Similar: Researchers have been struck by parallels between Titan and Earth
Similar: Researchers have been struck by parallels  between Titan and Earth

Titan boasts landscapes shaped by the flow of  rivers – though they are rivers of liquid methane, not of water.

And, like Earth, the surface of Titan is  surprisingly free of craters, implying that geological activity is constantly  reshaping the moon, as also happens here.

The icy landscape of Titan was first  discovered by Earth-bound researchers in 2004, when the Cassini-Huygens  spacecraft which orbits Saturn first broke through the moon’s  atmosphere.

Scientists had previously been unable to see  the amazing rivers which carve out channels in the moon’s surface, as its  atmosphere is so thick with methane and nitrogen that the landscape is not  visible from Earth.

Intrigued by the discovery of the methane  rivers, researchers from MITand the University of Tennessee at Knoxville  wanted to investigate the history of Titan’s geology.

Breakthrough: In 2004, the first pictures of Titan's surface were captured

However, despite the visible river networks,  the astronomers found less erosion than they had expected, given that Titan has  been orbiting Saturn for four billion years.

Similarly, when they looked for craters which  could have been caused by meteorites, there were far fewer than on most other  moons in the solar system.

In fact, the number of craters was more  reminiscent to the situation on Earth, where plate tectonics and volcanic  explosions have covered up much of the impact of foreign bodies on the  planet.

‘Earth’s continents are always eroding or  being covered with sediment,’ said Taylor Perron, assistant professor of geology  at MIT. ‘That may be the case on Titan, too.’

Discovering which factors were responsible  for shaping Titan’s landscape could be a challenge, as the satellite images do  not give a good impression of the ups and downs of the moon’s  terrain.

‘It’s almost like we were thrown back a few  centuries, before there were many topographic maps, and we only had maps showing  where the rivers are,’ Mr Perron added.

Despite the challenges, Mr Perron said he  expected the similarities between Titan and Earth would give scientists an  ongoing insight into how the moon’s surface has changed over  millennia.

‘It’s a weirdly Earth-like place,’ he said,  ‘even with this exotic combination of materials and temperatures.

‘And so you can still say something  definitive about the erosion. It’s the same physics.’

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