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Mini Nile River on Saturn Moon Found By Cassini Spacecraft

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Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have spotted what appears to be a miniature, extraterrestrial likeness of Earth’s Nile River: a river valley on Saturn’s moon Titan that stretches more than 200 miles (400 kilometers) from its “headwaters” to a large sea. It is the first time images have revealed a river system this vast and in such high resolution anywhere other than Earth.

Scientists deduce that the river, which is in Titan’s north polar region, is filled with liquid hydrocarbons because it appears dark along its entire length in the high-resolution radar image, indicating a smooth surface. 

“Though there are some short, local meanders, the relative straightness of the river valley suggests it follows the trace of at least one fault, similar to other large rivers running into the southern margin of this same Titan sea,” said Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. “Such faults – fractures in Titan’s bedrock — may not imply plate tectonics, like on Earth, but still lead to the opening of basins and perhaps to the formation of the giant seas themselves.” 

This image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows a vast river system on Saturn’s moon Titan. It is the first time images from space have revealed a river system so vast and in such high resolution anywhere other than Earth.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI
The new image is online at:  http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/multimedia/pia16197.html . 

Titan is the only other world we know of that has stable liquid on its surface. While Earth’s hydrologic cycle relies on water, Titan’s equivalent cycle involves hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane. In Titan’s equatorial regions, images from Cassini’s visible-light cameras in late 2010 revealed regions that darkened due to recent rainfall. Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer confirmed liquid ethane at a lake in Titan’s southern hemisphere known as Ontario Lacus in 2008. 

“Titan is the only place we’ve found besides Earth that has a liquid in continuous movement on its surface,” said Steve Wall, the radar deputy team lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “This picture gives us a snapshot of a world in motion. Rain falls, and rivers move that rain to lakes and seas, where evaporation starts the cycle all over again. On Earth, the liquid is water; on Titan, it’s methane; but on both it affects most everything that happens.” 

The radar image here was taken on Sept. 26, 2012. It shows Titan’s north polar region, where the river valley flows into Kraken Mare, a sea that is, in terms of size, between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea on Earth. The real Nile River stretches about 4,100 miles (6,700 kilometers). The processes that led to the formation of Earth’s Nile are complex, but involve faulting in some regions. 

 
These two gray-scale images from NASA’s Space Shuttle show part of the Nile River, near the Fourth Cataract in Sudan. The top photograph was originally taken with color infrared film from Space Shuttle Columbia in November 1995. The radar image at the bottom was acquired by Spaceborne Imaging Radar C/X-Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SIR-C/X-SAR) aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour in April 1994. The radar image shows clearly the current channel of the Nile as well as an older channel buried in drifting sands. 
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
 

Titan’s Nile-Like River Valley: This image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows a vast river system on Saturn’s moon Titan. It is the first time images from space have revealed a river system so vast and in such high resolution anywhere other than Earth. The image was acquired on Sept. 26, 2012, on Cassini’s 87th close flyby of Titan. The river valley crosses Titan’s north polar region and runs into Ligeia Mare, one of the three great seas in the high northern latitudes of Saturn’s moon Titan. It stretches more than 200 miles (400 kilometers). 

Scientists deduce that the river is filled with liquid because it appears dark along its entire extent in the high-resolution radar image, indicating a smooth surface. That liquid is presumably ethane mixed with methane, the former having been positively identified in 2008 by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer at the lake known as Ontario Lacus in Titan’s southern hemisphere. Though there are some short, local meanders, the relative straightness of the river valley suggests it follows the trace of at least one fault, similar to other large rivers running into the southern margin of Ligeia Mare (see PIA10008). Such faults may lead to the opening of basins and perhaps to the formation of the giant seas themselves. 

North is toward the top of this image. 

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and ASI, the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the US and several European countries. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Contacts and sources: Jia-Rui Cook, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 

 
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