Data from NASA’s Cassini mission suggest Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare, could be over 1,000-feet deep near its center.
NASA’s legendary Cassini mission at Saturn is still generating valuable data, three years after its intentional death. This time, it has news from Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare.
Cornell University astronomers have recently sifted through data from one of the final Titan flybys of the Cassini mission. Those data reveal Titan’s huge lake is more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) deep. That’s about the equivalent of the height of New York City’s Chrysler Building.
Scientists previously thought the lake’s depth was 115 feet (35 meters). But the new findings show the lake is nearly 10 times deeper than that early estimate.
Titan is the only world in our solar system besides Earth to have bodies of liquid on its surface. The researchers announced definitive evidence in 2007 thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
Scientists define the largest bodies of water as maria (seas) and the small ones as lacus (lakes).
Kraken Mare is the largest sea and contains 80% of Titan’s surface liquids.
If you placed this lake on Earth, it would cover all five of the Great Lakes of North America.
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“The depth and composition of each of Titan’s seas had already been measured, except for Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare—which not only has a great name but also contains about 80% of the moon’s surface liquids,” said lead author Valerio Poggiali, a research associate at the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science (CCAPS).
The hydrological cycle on Titan is very similar to Earth. The difference, however, is that the liquid on Saturn’s largest moon is not actually water, but rather liquid methane/ethane.
The latest findings could help scientists better understand Titan’s mysterious chemistry.
The Cassini mission studied Saturn and its moon for over a decade. While it cruised at 13,000 mph nearly 600 miles above Titan’s surface, the probe used its radar altimeter to measure the liquid depth at Kraken Mare and Moray Sinus, an estuary located at the sea’s northern end. The team used the time difference from return signals reflected by the surface of the sea at the estuary and signals that went through the liquid and reflected off the sea-bed to work out the depths of the estuary and the sea.
Scientists were able to estimate that the Moray Sinus is about 280 feet (85 meters) deep. That’s shallower than the depths of central Kraken Mare, which was too deep for the radar to measure. Surprisingly the liquid’s composition was methane-dominated and similar to the composition of nearby Ligeia Mare, Titan’s second-largest sea.
Scientists have previously theorized that Kraken may be more ethane rich, both due to its size and extension to the moon’s lower latitudes. Given this estimate, it appears that Kraken Mare is not much different from the other major liquid bodies on the surface of the moon, and this is essential in our understanding of Titan.
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Despite the uncertainties, the data has enabled the team of scientists to estimate that the Kraken Sea is at least 330 feet (100 meters) deep but could easily be three times that, at around 1,000 feet (300 meters).
Besides being the only world in our solar system except Earth to have bodies of liquid on its surface, Titan is also the only known moon to boast a thick atmosphere—a gaseous nitrogen shroud, compared to Earth’s mostly nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere.
Scientists say Titan represents a model environment of a possible atmosphere of early Earth.
What confuses them, however, is the origin of the liquid methane. Titan’s solar light—about 100 times less intense than on Earth—constantly converts methane in the atmosphere into ethane. That means over roughly 10 million-year periods, this process would completely deplete Titan’s surface stores, according to Poggiali.
NASA is planning an exploration of Titan for mid-2026 with NASA’s Dragonfly mission arriving by 2034. The mission aims to search for possible signs of life.
Scientists are also working on a submarine—likely without a mechanical engine—that, if funded and approved by NASA, could launch in the 2030s to plumb Titan’s lakes.
“Thanks to our measurements,” Poggiali said, “scientists can now infer the density of the liquid with higher precision, and consequently better calibrate the sonar aboard the vessel and understand the sea’s directional flows.”
The researchers detailed their findings in “The Bathymetry of Moray Sinus at Titan’s Kraken Mare,” published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.