Artist’s depiction of Saturn and its moon Titan. Stanford scientists’ model suggestions that Titan’s icy outer crust is likely twice as thick as previously thought.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, icier than thought, scientists say

December 4, 2012 by Louis Bergeron

(Phys.org)—A new analysis of topographic and gravity data from Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, indicates that Titan’s icy outer crust is twice as thick as has generally been thought.

Scientists have long suspected that a vast ocean of liquid water lies under the crust. The new study suggests that the internally generated heat that keeps that ocean from freezing solid depends far more on Titan’s interactions with Saturn and its other moons than had been suspected.

Howard Zebker, a professor of geophysics and of electrical engineering at Stanford University, will present the findings at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco on Tuesday (Dec. 4).

Zebker is part of the team interpreting radar data of Titan acquired by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. He has been studying the topography of Titan, and has combined improved radar measurements of the moon’s surface with newly released gravity measurements to make the new analysis.

Titan has long intrigued scientists because of its similarities to the Earth. Like Earth, Titan appears to have a layered structure, crudely similar to the concentric layers of an onion, albeit far less edible.

“Titan probably has a core that is a mixture of ice and rock,” said Zebker. The core is overlain by the ocean and icy crust.

The rock in the core is thought to contain radioactive elements left over from the formation of the solar system. As in Earth’s core, when those elements decay, they generate heat. On Titan, that heat is crucial to keeping its ocean from freezing solid.

Read more: Titan, Saturn's largest moon, icier than thought, scientists say — phys.org.

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