Saturn's moon Titan has volcanic craters similar to Earth indicating it has potential for life, says study

Earth and Saturn's moon Titan share many features, including rivers, winds, clouds, and landforms. The new discovery of craters from volcanic activity adds to this list

                            Saturn's moon Titan has volcanic craters similar to Earth indicating it has potential for life, says study
Saturn's moon, Titan, in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths photographed by the Cassini spacecraft (NASA)

Millions of miles apart yet spectacularly similar — Earth and Saturn's moon Titan share many similar features, including rivers, winds, clouds and landforms. Now, a new study has added another item to the list: craters formed from volcanic activity. These findings indicate that the icy moon has heat locked up beneath its surface, suggesting a potential for life in its interiors.

These craters, which seem to be bustling with activity, are located on the moon's polar region. These findings are courtesy of NASA's Cassini Orbiter, which spent 13 years keeping an eye on Saturn and its moons. During its time, the spacecraft mapped the moon. It also discovered that Titan is dotted with lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane, which are, in turn, fed by rains.

Scientists from Brigham Young University carried out the study after Cassini spotted something unusual on the north pole: abundant depressions. On digging further, they found clues in the form of islands or floor mountains. These morphological features suggest that some of those depressions are collapse craters caused due to volcanic activity. "The apparent freshness of some craters may mean that volcanism has been relatively recently active on Titan or even continues today," says co-author Charles Wood, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, Arizona.


To gain more insight on whether the icy moon has volcanic activity, researchers compared these craters with those found on Earth and Mars. Describing them, Wood said they look roughly round with raised rims and they sometimes overlap one another. "They are consistent with the shapes of other volcanic landforms on Earth and Mars formed by explosion, excavation and collapse," he explains.

They also noted that volcanic activity from the moon's interiors triggered the formation of craters. On the contrary, other landforms on Titan, such as dunes, river valleys, and lakes, were formed because of the atmosphere.

Titan's craters may have some link with the lakes dotting the polar surface. "The close association of the proposed volcanic craters with polar lakes is consistent with a volcanic origin through explosive eruptions followed by collapse, as either maars or calderas," he explains. "These features are at the polar regions, near the lakes of methane, may indicate methane, nitrogen or some other volatile may power them. The features appear relatively fresh, meaning they could still be forming today," he adds.

We demonstrate that there is also evidence for internal heat, manifesting at the surface as cryovolcanoes, made from melting the water ice crust into liquid water that erupts onto Titan's surface, Wood says.

This image compares nested, multi-collapse craters on Titan (upper left), Mars (upper right), and two on Earth (below). (Planetary Science Institute)

Cassini was put to rest in 2017 but not before providing a wealth of data. Scientists have marveled over the shared features between our home planet and Saturn's moon. "Titan looks more like the Earth than any other body in the solar system, despite the huge differences in temperature and other environmental conditions."

Next, NASA is working on building Cassini's successor: Dragonfly mission. The lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2026, will hunt for life by scanning and examining sites around Titan. The study is published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

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