Titan, as seen from the Cassini spacecraft. (Photo : Wikimedia Commons)
Scientists released a report Thursday that suggests that Saturn's giant moon, Titan, may harbor an ocean of water just beneath its crust. This would mean Titan has the most essential ingredient for life - liquid water.
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To arrive at their conclusion, the scientists poured over data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been collecting data on the gravitational shifts in the moon from 2006 to 2011.
The gravity maps revealed that Titan squeezed and stretched by about 33 feet depending on its orbital position in relation to Saturn. This "squishiness" of Titan is best explained by a liquid body of water. Were the moon solid rock or ice, this level of elasticity would not be present, the scientists say.
Although not a conclusive sighting, short of actually drilling a hole on Titan and excavating water, this may be the most concrete evidence for a liquid body of water on the moon.
"The evidence for an ocean on Titan is nearly as good as the evidence for an ocean on Europa," planetary scientist Jonathan Lunine, with Cornell University, told Discovery News. "That puts Titan in an elite class of objects that are uniquely qualified to possibly host life."
However, unlike Europa, whose ocean sits on rock, the ocean on Titan is most likely sandwiched between layers of ice, meaning that it might not have access to the minerals and sediments that would help foster life.
The size of the ocean has been previously estimated to be 30 miles to 62 miles deep with traces of ammonia. The underground ocean could explain how Titan replenishes the methane in its atmosphere.
In 2005, the Huygens space probe landed on the surface, and concluded that there was a probability that a body of water existed based on electrical field measurements and mathematical modeling.