In the paper, published in the April 2011 edition of the journal Icarus, scientists conclude Titan's interior may be cool and dormant and incapable of causing active ice volcanoes.
"It would be fantastic to find strong evidence that clearly shows Titan has an internal heat source that causes ice volcanoes and lava flows to form," said Jeff Moore, lead author of the paper and a planetary scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. "But we find that the evidence presented to date is unconvincing, and recent studies of Titan's interior conducted by geophysicists and gravity experts also weaken the possibility of volcanoes there."
Scientists agree that Titan shows evidence of having lakes of liquid methane and ethane, and valleys carved by these exotic liquids, as well as impact craters. However, a debate continues to brew about how to interpret the Cassini data on Titan. Some scientists theorize ice volcanoes exist and suggest energy from an internal heat source may have caused ice to rise and release methane vapors as it reached Titan's surface.
"Titan is a fascinating world," said Robert Pappalardo, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and former project scientist for NASA's Cassini mission. "Its uniqueness comes from its atmosphere and organic lakes, but in this study, we find no strong evidence for icy volcanism on Titan."
In December 2010, a group of Cassini scientists presented new topographic data on an area of Titan called Sotra Facula, which they think makes the best case yet for a possible volcanic mountain that once erupted ice on Titan. Although Moore and Pappalardo do not explicitly consider this recent topographic analysis in their paper, they do not find the recent analysis of Sotra Facula to be convincing so far. It remains to be seen whether ongoing analyses of Sotra Facula can change minds.
Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only known moon to have a dense atmosphere, composed primarily of nitrogen, with two to three percent methane. One goal of the Cassini mission is to find an explanation for what, if anything, might be maintaining this atmosphere.
Titan's dense atmosphere makes its surface very difficult to study with visible-light cameras, but infrared instruments and radar signals can peer through the haze and provide information about both the composition and shape of the surface.
"Titan is most akin to Jupiter's moon Callisto, if Callisto had weather," Moore added. "Every feature we have seen on Titan can be explained by wind, rain and meteorite impacts, rather than from internal heating."
The Cassini spacecraft, currently orbiting Saturn, continues to make fly-bys of Titan. Scientists will continue to explore Titan's mysteries, including investigations of the changes in the landscapes.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and several of its instruments were designed, developed and assembled at JPL.
For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini.
Fore more information about possible ice volcanoes on Titan, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/newsrelease20101214/ and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/news/newsreleases/20081215titanvolcanoes/ .
For more information about Alan Howard's Landform Evolution Computer Simulation Modeling at the University of Virginia, visit http://erode.evsc.virginia.edu/marsfluv.htm.
Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Rachel Hoover 650-604-0643
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif.