Mile-High Mountains Found on Saturn's Moon Titan

Richard A. Lovett in San Francisco, California
for National Geographic News
December 13, 2006
Saturn's giant moon Titan has a mountain range tall enough to produce
streamers of clouds that extend far around the moon, scientists say.

The peaks are the largest mountains discovered on Titan to date.

"You could call this the Titan Sierras," said Robert Brown of the University of Arizona, in a reference to California's Sierra Nevada range.

Brown announced the find in San Francisco, California, on December 11 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

The mountains were photographed by the Cassini spacecraft, now in orbit around Saturn. The craft turned its visual and infrared cameras on the moon during a close flyby on October 25.

(See a National Geographic magazine feature on Cassini's Saturn mission.)

The mountain range is nearly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) tall and 100 miles (150 kilometers) long.

Several smaller ranges appear to be nearby, as does a circular feature that might be the crater from an ancient asteroid impact powerful enough to have punched through Titan's outer crust.

Brown speculates that the mountains might be a chain of volcanoes that oozed up along cracks in the crust after the impact.

Titan "Remarkably Earthlike"

Some scientists caution that there shouldn't be a rush to dub the newfound range the Mount Everest of Titan.

Earth's tallest mountain, Mount Everest reaches heights of about 5.5 miles (8.8 kilometers).

"It's an interesting find, but finding the highest so far may not mean a lot given that we haven't observed that much of Titan yet," Ralph Lorenz of Johns Hopkins University's Planetary Exploration Group said by email.

More interesting, Lorenz says, is the fact that the mountains are aligned north-south on a part of Titan that is always directly facing Saturn.

That means that tidal forces from Saturn may have contributed to creating the cracks along which the range formed, he said.

The mountains are another remarkably Earthlike discovery on a world that has already yielded lakes, streambeds, sand dunes, and a continent-size land mass christened Xanadu.

(Read "Earthlike 'Continent' Found on Saturn Moon" [July 21, 2006].)

"You can think of Titan as like the Earth in deep freeze," said Rosaly Lopes of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"It's more Earthlike than anywhere else in the solar system, but the surface is very cold."

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