Cassini Finds Subsurface Ocean on Saturn Moon

By Amir Khan on June 29, 2012 10:42 AM EDT

Titan
NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004, has discovered what appears to be an underground ocean on Titan, Saturn's largest moon (Photo: Creative Commons)

NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004, has discovered what appears to be an underground ocean on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The finding adds the moon onto a shortlist of celestial bodies suspected of having liquid water -- a list that consists of Jupiter's moon Europa and Saturn's smaller moon Enceladus.

Researchers published their findings on Thursday in the journal Science.

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"Cassini's detection of large tides on Titan leads to the almost inescapable conclusion that there is a hidden ocean at depth," Luciano Iess, study author and a Cassini team member at the Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, said, according to NASA. "The search for water is an important goal in solar system exploration, and now we've spotted another place where it is abundant."

Titan takes only 16 days to orbit Saturn, so Cassini was able to get several looks at the moon between 2004 and 2011. During the flybys, scientists measured the how much Saturn's gravity distorted the moon. They found that the moon deformed more than it should, leading them to conclude that Titan is softer than previously thought.

"The evidence is strong that Titan is squishy," Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist with Cornell University told Reuters.

Based on Cassini's findings, researchers said there is likely an ocean 62 miles (100 kilometers) below Titan's surface, and though the moon has lakes of hydrocarbon and methane, it's the ocean is likely water.

"The subsurface ocean has to be made of water, or water mixed with a relatively small percentage of salts," Iess told Reuters.

And while an ocean doesn't not necessarily mean there is like, Iess said Titan has many of the building blocks required for life.

"The presence of water does not imply life," he said. "But Titan has many interesting ingredients - hydrocarbons, a hydrological cycle and a thick atmosphere."

Cassini will pass by Titan again in 2017, at which point scientists hope to refine their gravity measurements.

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