Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is believed to hold five of the bases of Earthly life in its dense atmosphere, as well as some simple amino acids, which together form the building blocks of DNA. Since that discovery, scientists have been optimistic about what it could mean for the very beginning of life on our planet as we know it; that perhaps it also sprung from the atmosphere as well as from what they call a “primordial soup” on land.
Now, a new discovery on Titan has the scientific world buzzing: at least one huge lake, different from the hundreds of pools of water grouped around its poles by a very interesting factor. This lake, which is half as big as Utah’s Great Salt Lake and stands at about three feet deep, is located near the equator, which has earned it a “tropical” title.
To be clear, there is no “tropical” weather on Saturn. It’s an extremely frigid planet, hosting temperatures of around -297 degrees Fahrenheit. The lakes on its surface are actually formed with methane gases and other liquid hydrocarbons rather than water. Those studying the moon have given the newly found lake a descriptor that we associate with warm, sandy locales because of its proximity to the equator.
The interesting thing about this find is that it was previously believed that liquid methane was formed near the equatorial region on Titan and then carried on the breeze to the north and south poles of the moon, where cooler temperatures condensed it, transforming it into small bodies of liquid. Basically, if you remember anything about sixth-grade science, it’s pretty much the same thing that happens on Earth with water. But now–with the aid of NASA’s Cassini orbiter–scientists have reason to believe the methane is being supplied near the equator by an underground aquifer.
“We had thought that Titan simply had extensive dunes at the equator and lakes at the poles, but now we know that Titan is more complex than we previously thought,” said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist for NASA. “Cassini still has multiple opportunities to fly by this moon going forward, so we can’t wait to see how the details of this story fill out.”