Thursday, July 31, 2008

On the shores of Ontario Lacus

According to the Cassini spacecraft, Saturn's moon Titan has a complete hydrological cycle based on ethane rather than water (which cannot exist as a liquid at the moon's average temperature of -300 F). From the story:
The visual and mapping instrument observed a lake, Ontario Lacus, in Titan's south polar region during a close Cassini flyby in December 2007. The lake is roughly 20,000 square kilometers (7,800 square miles) in area, slightly larger than North America's Lake Ontario.


The ethane is in a liquid solution with methane, other hydrocarbons and nitrogen. At Titan's surface temperatures, approximately 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, these substances can exist as both liquid and gas. Titan shows overwhelming evidence of evaporation, rain, and fluid-carved channels draining into what, in this case, is a liquid hydrocarbon lake.

Earth has a hydrological cycle based on water and Titan has a cycle based on methane. Scientists ruled out the presence of water ice, ammonia, ammonia hydrate and carbon dioxide in Ontario Lacus. The observations also suggest the lake is evaporating. It is ringed by a dark beach, where the black lake merges with the bright shoreline. Cassini also observed a shelf and beach being exposed as the lake evaporates.
Sounds chilly, but beautiful.

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