In Brief
  • New images from the Cassini mission show the surface of Saturn's moon, Titan, to have a topography similar to that of our own planet.
  • The presence of methane rivers and lakes point to the giant moon as a good contender to be home to methane-based lifeforms.

A Bizarro Earth

An international team of researchers have found a topological brother for Earth right in our own solar system. Using data from NASA’s Cassini radar’s altimetry mode, the team has discovered that Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, boasts a canyon- and river-filled landscape very similar to our own, but with a few key differences.

“Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane,” Alex Hayes, one of the Cornell University astronomers behind the research, told Phys.org. “And yet it’s remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds”

Even more surprising are the canyons found in the northern part of Titan as the researchers are baffled as to how they formed.

“Their narrow width and depth imply rapid erosion, as sea levels rise and fall in the nearby sea. This brings up a host of questions, such as where did all the eroded material go?” Hayes said. Right now, their best guess is that a combination of forces are responsible, but more research will need to be conducted before they can say for certain.

Credit: Cassini/NASA/JPL
Credit: Cassini/NASA/JPL

Life on Titan

The discovery of these rivers of methane could make Titan a solid candidate for bearing extraterrestrial life.

While Earth’s abundance of water supports our living creatures, some organisms could thrive on methaneAccording to Cornell researchers, these methane-based, oxygen-free creatures would metabolize and reproduce in ways similar to the lifeforms found on Earth. They would have the ability to function in liquid methane temperatures far below zero, like those encountered on Saturn’s icy moon.

The Cassini mission is expected to last another 10 months, so researchers will continue the hunt for clues as to how these canyons and rivers formed and, even more importantly, whether any living organisms could be lurking in their depths.