In a nod to extraterrestrial mountaineers of the future, scientists working on NASA’s Cassini mission have identified the highest point on Saturn’s largest moon Titan.
Titan’s tallest peak is 10,948 feet high and is found within a trio of mountainous ridges called the Mithrim Montes.
The researchers found that all of Titan’s highest peaks are about 10,000 feet in elevation.
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The study used images and other data from Cassini’s radar instrument, which can peer through the obscuring smog of Titan’s atmosphere to reveal the surface in detail.
“It’s not only the highest point we’ve found so far on Titan, but we think it’s the highest point we’re likely to find,” said Stephen Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team at NASA.
Most of Titan’s tallest mountains appear to be close to the equator.
The researchers identified other peaks of similar height within the Mithrim Montes, as well as in the rugged region known as Xanadu.
“As explorers, we’re motivated to find the highest or deepest places partly because it’s exciting. But Titan’s extremes also tell us important things about forces affecting its evolution,” added Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Mountains and cliffs on Earth usually are found in locations where forces have shoved the surface upward from underneath.
The Himalaya and Andes Mountains are examples of places where interior forces are at work today.
Cassini has found that Titan also has rain and rivers that erode its landscape.
According to Radebaugh, the process probably proceeds much more slowly on Titan than on the Earth because, at 10 times Earth’s distance from the sun, there is less energy to power erosive processes in the moon’s atmosphere.
The fact that Titan has significant mountains suggests that some active tectonic forces could be affecting the surface, for example, related to Titan’s rotation, tidal forces from Saturn or cooling of the crust.
The next step for the researchers will be trying to figure out what could produce such tall peaks on an icy ocean world.
“There is lot of value in examining the topography of Titan in a broad, global sense, since it tells us about forces acting on the surface from below as well as above,” said Radebaugh.
The results were presented at the 47th annual lunar and planetary science conference in Texas on Thursday.