Saturn's moon Titanís lakes covered with hydrocarbon ice blocks

Saturn moon titan

Scientists on NASA's Cassini mission have claimed to have found blocks of hydrocarbon ice decorating the surface of existing lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbon on Saturn's moon Titan.

The presence of ice floes might explain some of the mixed readings Cassini has seen in the reflectivity of the surfaces of lakes on Titan.

"One of the most intriguing questions about these lakes and seas is whether they might host an exotic form of life," Jonathan Lunine, a paper co-author and Cassini interdisciplinary Titan scientist at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York said.

"And the formation of floating hydrocarbon ice will provide an opportunity for interesting chemistry along the boundary between liquid and solid, a boundary that may have been important in the origin of terrestrial life," he said.

Titan is the only other body besides Earth in our solar system with stable bodies of liquid on its surface.

But while our planet's cycle of precipitation and evaporation involves water, Titan's cycle involves hydrocarbons like ethane and methane.

Ethane and methane are organic molecules, which scientists think can be building blocks for the more complex chemistry from which life arose.

Cassini has seen a vast network of these hydrocarbon seas cover Titan's northern hemisphere, while a more sporadic set of lakes bejewels the southern hemisphere.

Up to this point, Cassini scientists assumed that Titan lakes would not have floating ice, because solid methane is denser than liquid methane and would sink.

But the new model considers the interaction between the lakes and the atmosphere, resulting in different mixtures of compositions, pockets of nitrogen gas, and changes in temperature.

The result, scientists found, is that winter ice will float in Titan's methane-and-ethane-rich lakes and seas if the temperature is below the freezing point of methane -- minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit (90.4 Kelvins).

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