Lakes on Titan Fill Earth-Like Sinkholes

Researchers suggest that some of the lakes and oceans covering Saturn’s moon Titan reside in sinkholes.


Titan is likely too cold for liquid water to exist on the moon’s surface. But liquid methane rains down from the sky and fills the bodies of liquid. Rivers and streams fill many of these large, deep liquid bodies. But other smaller, shallow lakes appear to exist on their own, independent of any stream or river.

Based on new data collected by the joint NASA/European Space Agency (ESA) Cassini mission, researchers believe that geological features found on Earth can explain these stand-alone lakes.

Lakes on Titan Fill Earth-Like Sinkholes - Clapway

A team led by ESA planetary scientist Thomas Cornet surmises that geologic features known as karst landforms provides a possible explanation. This type of landscape forms on Earth when water drains into the ground, resulting in erosion of rocks and other materials over time, which can lead to sinkholes. The thought is that sinkholes form on Titan like they do on Earth, and are filled with liquid by rainfall and underground sources.

“By comparing Titan’s surface features with examples on Earth and applying a few simple calculations, we have found similar land-shaping processes that could be operating under very different climate and chemical regimes,” explains ESA’s Cassini project scientist Nicolas Altobelli. She continues, “This is a great comparative study between our home planet and a dynamic world more than a billion kilometers away in the outer solar system.” The team’s research was recently published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Planets.


Planetary scientists and astrobiologists routinely look to Earth to explain features and behaviors on other worlds, and to better understand the conditions in which life can exist.

Aside from holding the title of the second largest moon in the solar system (Jupiter’s moon Ganymede is the largest), Titan is one of the most exciting bodies in the solar system because of its atmosphere’s similarity to Earth’s atmosphere, and because, as far as scientists are aware, it is the only other body in the solar system with bodies of liquid on its surface. And, based on its tilt and movement, scientists suspect a vast ocean sits beneath Titan’s surface.

Astrobiologists also place Titan high on the list of bodies in the solar system where extraterrestrial life might exist today. Previous studies of Titan have shown the moon to have a chemically complex surface on which exotic forms of life could exist. The Cassini mission has been a tremendous success, and it continues providing valuable information about Saturn and its moons to researchers.


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