Cassini Finds Vast River On Saturn’s Moon Titan

By  //  October 4, 2013

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Similarities To Nile System On Earth

ABOVE VIDEO: Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) is a joint NASA/ESA proposal for an exploration of Saturn and its moons Titan and Enceladus, where many complex phenomena have been revealed by the recent Cassini Huygens mission.

BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have spotted what appears to be a miniature, extraterrestrial likeness of Earth’s Nile River: a river valley on Saturn’s moon Titan that stretches more than 200 miles from its “headwaters” to a large sea.

This image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft shows a vast river system on Saturn’s moon Titan. (Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI)

It is the first time images have revealed a river system this vast and in such high resolution anywhere other than Earth.

Scientists deduce that the river, which is in Titan’s north polar region, is filled with liquid hydrocarbons because it appears dark along its entire length in the high-resolution radar image, indicating a smooth surface.

“Though there are some short, local meanders, the relative straightness of the river valley suggests it follows the trace of at least one fault, similar to other large rivers running into the southern margin of this same Titan sea,” said Jani Radebaugh, a Cassini radar team associate at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. “Such faults – fractures in Titan’s bedrock — may not imply plate tectonics, like on Earth, but still lead to the opening of basins and perhaps to the formation of the giant seas themselves.”

Titan is the only other world we know of that has stable liquid on its surface.


While Earth’s hydrologic cycle relies on water, Titan’s equivalent cycle involves hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane.

The Cassini spacecraft was launched from Kennedy Space Center in 1997 and has been sending back images of the Saturn system since its arrival there in 2004.  (Artists depiction courtesy of NASA/JPL)
The Cassini spacecraft was launched from Kennedy Space Center in 1997 and has been sending back images of the Saturn system since its arrival there in 2004. (Artists depiction courtesy of NASA/JPL)

In Titan’s equatorial regions, images from Cassini’s visible-light cameras in late 2010 revealed regions that darkened due to recent rainfall. Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer confirmed liquid ethane at a lake in Titan’s southern hemisphere known as Ontario Lacus in 2008.

“Titan is the only place we’ve found besides Earth that has a liquid in continuous movement on its surface,” said Steve Wall, the radar deputy team lead, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. “This picture gives us a snapshot of a world in motion. Rain falls, and rivers move that rain to lakes and seas, where evaporation starts the cycle all over again. On Earth, the liquid is water; on Titan, it’s methane; but on both it affects most everything that happens.”

Radar images show Titan’s north polar region, where the river valley flows into the sea called Ligeia Mare, a sea that is, in terms of size, between the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea on Earth.

Jani Radebaugh
Jani Radebaugh

The real Nile River stretches about 4,100 miles (6,700 kilometers). The processes that led to the formation of Earth’s Nile are complex, but involve faulting in some regions.


The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and ASI, the Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in 1997 and reached Saturn in 2004.

On Jan. 14, 2005, the Huygens portion of the Cassini spacecraft landed on Titan and collected data becoming the first craft to accomplish a successful landing in the outer solar system.

The Cassini mission is expected to end in 2017 with an impact of the spacecraft into Saturn.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.