Scientists made the discovery using data from an instrument aboard the Cassini spacecraft. The instrument identified chemically different materials based on the way they absorb and reflect infrared light. Before Cassini, scientists thought Titan would have global oceans of methane, ethane and other light hydrocarbons. More than 40 close flybys of Titan by Cassini show no such global oceans exist, but hundreds of dark lake-like features are present. Until now, it was not known whether these features were liquid or simply dark, solid material.
"This is the first observation that really pins down that Titan has a surface lake filled with liquid," said Bob Brown of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Brown is the team leader of Cassini's visual and mapping instrument. The results will be published in the July 31 issue of the journal Nature.
Ethane and several other simple hydrocarbons have been identified in Titan's atmosphere, which consists of 95 percent nitrogen, with methane making up the other 5 percent. Ethane and other hydrocarbons are products from atmospheric chemistry caused by the breakdown of methane by sunlight.
Some of the hydrocarbons react further and form fine aerosol particles. All of these things in Titan's atmosphere make detecting and identifying materials on the surface difficult, because these particles form a ubiquitous hydrocarbon haze that hinders the view. Liquid ethane was identified using a technique that removed the interference from the atmospheric hydrocarbons.
The visual and mapping instrument observed a lake, Ontario Lacus, in Titan's south polar region during a close Cassini flyby in December 2007. The lake is roughly 7,800 square miles in area, slightly larger than North America's Lake
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