An analysis of gravity and topography data from Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has revealed that Titan’s ice shell is rigid and that relatively small topographic features on the surface are associated with large roots extending into the underlying ocean. Led by planetary scientists Douglas Hemingway and Francis Nimmo at the University of California, Santa Cruz, the study used new data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The researchers were surprised to find a negative correlation between the gravity and topography signals on Titan.
"Normally, if you fly over a mountain, you expect to see an increase in gravity due to the extra mass of the mountain. On Titan, when you fly over a mountain the gravity gets lower. That’s a very odd observation," said Nimmo, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz.
To explain that observation, the researchers developed a model in which each bump in the topography on the surface of Titan is offset by a deeper “root” big enough to overwhelm the gravitational effect of the bump on the surface. The root is like an iceberg extending below the ice shell into the ocean underneath it. “Because ice is lower density than water, you get less gravity when you have a big chunk of ice there than when you have water,” Nimmo explained.
An iceberg floating in water is in equilibrium, its buoyancy balancing out its weight. In this model of Titan, however, the roots extending below the ice sheet are so much bigger than the bumps on the surface that their buoyancy is pushing them up against the ice sheet.
"It’s like a big beach ball under the ice sheet pushing up on it, and the only way to keep it submerged is if the ice sheet is strong," said Hemingway, a doctoral candidate in planetary geophysics at UCSC and lead author of the paper. "If large roots are the reason for the negative correlation, it means that Titan’s ice shell must have a very thick rigid layer." The Daily Galaxy via University of California, Santa Cruz