Spaceflight Insider

Cassini spots tallest mountain on Titan

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Titan in front of the ringed world Saturn, as seen in May 2012 by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

The tallest peak on Saturn’s moon Titan has been spotted by scientists working on NASA’s Cassini mission. The peak is near Titan’s equator within a trio of mountainous ridges called Mithrim Montes and is about 10,948 feet (3,337 meters) high. It was found using images from Cassini’s radar instrument, which peers through the thick, orange-like smog of the moon’s atmosphere.

Radar image

The mountain is located midway along the lower of the three ridges in this radar image. Photo Credit: NASA

“It’s not only the highest point we’ve found so far on Titan, but we think it’s the highest point we’re likely to find,” Stephen Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a news release.

Titan’s tallest mountains all appear to be close to the equator. According to the news release, researchers identified peaks similar in height within Mithrim Montes as well as in the rugged region known as Xanadu.

Originally, the research team was looking for active zones within Titan’s crust. Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, said that Titan’s extremes also provide scientists with important data about forces affecting its evolution.

On Earth, where mountains are located, forces such as plate tectonics are pushing the surface upward from below. Additionally, erosion forces, such as rain and wind, are constantly wearing down those mountains.

Titan also has rain—but the rain is composed of methane instead of the water droplets that comprise Earth’s precipitation. It forms rivers that erode the mountainsides. Furthermore, because Titan’s crust is thought to sit atop a deep ocean of liquid water, scientists think that layer of liquid water likely acts like Earth’s upper mantle.

Additionally, Titan’s bedrock is made up of water-ice, which is softer than the rock on Earth. As a result, mountain building on Titan can only go so far. However, because Titan has high peaks at all suggests that there are at least some tectonic forces—such as tidal forces from Saturn—affecting the surface.

Artist's illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft above the Saturnian moon Titan. Image Credit NASA

Cassini arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004. Image Credit: NASA

“There is a lot of value in examining the topography of Titan in a broad, global sense, since it tells us about forces acting on the surface from below as well as above,” Radebaugh said.

Cassini is a cooperative project that includes NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. It was launched in 1997 by a Titan IVB rocket from Cape Canaveral in Florida and spent seven years coasting toward the ringed planet. Saturn Orbit Insertion occurred in 2004 and the spacecraft has been orbiting the ringed world ever since.

Over the last 12 years, the spacecraft has conducted numerous flybys of all the major moons of Saturn including more than a hundred flybys of Titan. Cassini, along with a small lander, called Huygens, has confirmed the presence of liquid methane on the surface—be it as rain or in lakes.

The spacecraft is currently on the Solstice Mission—an extension of the spacecraft’s efforts at Saturn set to last through 2017. In 2016, Cassini will fly by Titan 11 times with the next close-encounter due to occur on April 4. On that day, it will fly as low as 615 miles (990 kilometers) above the surface of the shrouded moon.

Over the next year, a handful of large engine burns will raise the inclination of the probe to nearly 64 degrees in order to prepare for the spacecraft’s Grand Finale mission phase which is planned to begin in April 2017.

Cassini is currently expected to conduct a controlled descent into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017, in order to safely dispose of the probe without contaminating any moons around Saturn with Earth biology.

Mountains on Titan

A map of the mountains that have been given official names by the International Astronomical Union. Mountains on titan are named for mountains from Middle-earth, the fictional setting in the “Lord of the Rings” novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. Photo Credit: NASA

 

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Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

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