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Cassini data from Titan indicate a rigid, weathered ice shell

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Posted August 29, 2013
New Cassini data from Titan indicate a rigid, weathered ice shell

A rigid ice shell resists the upward pressure of a buoyant root, whose low density produces a negative gravity anomaly. Upward deflection of the ice shell creates positive topography, but surface weathering keeps that topography small. Credit: Doug Hemingway

An analysis of gravity and topography data from Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has revealed unexpected features of the moon’s outer ice shell. The best explanation for the findings, the authors said, is that Titan’s ice shell is rigid and that relatively small topographic features on the surface are associated with large roots extending into the underlying ocean. The study is published in the August 29 issue of the journal Nature.

Led by planetary scientists Douglas Hemingway and Francis Nimmo at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the study used new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The researchers were surprised to find a negative correlation between the gravity and topography signals on Titan.

“Normally, if you fly over a mountain, you expect to see an increase in gravity due to the extra mass of the mountain. On Titan, when you fly over a mountain the gravity gets lower. That’s a very odd observation,” said Nimmo, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

To explain that observation, the researchers developed a model in which each bump in the topography on the surface of Titan is offset by a deeper “root” big enough to overwhelm the gravitational effect of the bump on the surface. The root is like an iceberg extending below the ice shell into the ocean underneath it. “Because ice is lower density than water, you get less gravity when you have a big chunk of ice there than when you have water,” Nimmo explained.

Read more at: Phys.org

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