Titan seen by Cassini. © NASA

Water-ice boundary on Titan

Hi there! Titan may be the most famous satellite in the Solar System, I realize that I never devoted a post to it. It is high time to make it so. I present you Does Titan’s long-wavelength topography contain information about subsurface ocean dynamics? by Jakub Kvorka, Ondřej Čadek, Gabriel Tobie & Gaël Choblet, which has recently been accepted for publication in Icarus. This paper tries to understand the mechanisms responsible for the location of the boundary between the icy crust and the subsurface ocean. This affects the thickness of the crust, which itself affects the topography of Titan.


The existence of Titan is known since 1655 thanks to the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. It was the only known satellite of Saturn until the discovery of Iapetus in 1671. It is the second largest natural satellite of the Solar System (mean radius: 2,575 km), and it orbits Saturn in almost 16 days, on a 3% eccentric and almost equatorial orbit (actually, a small tilt is due to the gravitational influence of the Sun).

It has interesting physical characteristics:

  • A thick atmosphere (pressure at the surface: 1.5 bar) mainly composed of nitrogen, with clouds of methane and ethane.
  • A complex surface. We can find hydrocarbon seas, i.e. lakes of methane and ethane (Kraken Mare, Ontario Lacus…), we also have a mountain chain, which features have been named after Tolkien’s Lords of the Rings (Gandalf Colles, Erebor Mons,…). There are some impact craters as well, but not that many, which suggests a geologically young surface. There is probably cryovolcanism on Titan, i.e. eruptions of volatile elements. The surface and the atmosphere interact, i.e. there are exchange between the liquid methane and ethane of the lakes and the gaseous ones present in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is responsible for erosion of the surface, for winds which are likely to create dunes, and for heat exchanges.
  • A global subsurface ocean, lying under the icy crust.
Map of Titan.
Map of Titan.

The quest for the internal ocean

An internal, water ocean is considered to be of high interest for habitability, i.e. we cannot exclude the presence of bacteriological life in such an environment. This makes Titan one of the priority targets for future investigations.

The presence of the ocean was hinted long ago, from the consideration that, at some depth, the water ice covering the surface would be in such conditions of temperature and pressure that it should not be solid anymore, but liquid. The detection of this ocean has been hoped from the Cassini-Huygens mission, and this was a success. More precisely:

  • The rotation of the surface of Titan is synchronous, i.e. Titan shows on average the same face to Saturn, like our Moon, but with a significant obliquity (0.3°), which could reveal the presence of a global ocean which would decouple the rotation of the crust from the one of the core.
  • A Schumann resonance, i.e. an electromagnetic signal, has been detected by the lander Huygens in the atmosphere of Titan, during its fall. This could be due to an excitation of a magnetic field by a global conductive layer, i.e. a global subsurface ocean.
  • The gravitational Love number k2, which gives the amplitude of the response of the gravity field of Titan to the variations of the gravitational attraction of Saturn, is too large to be explained by a fully solid Titan.

All of these clues have convinced almost all of the scientific community that Titan has a global subsurface ocean. Determining its depth, thickness, composition,… is another story. In the study I present you today, the authors tried to elucidate the connection between its depth and the surface topography.

Modeling the ice-water boundary

The authors tried to determine the depth of the melting point of the water ice with respect to the latitude and longitude. This phase boundary is the thickness of the icy crust. For that, they wrote down the equations governing the viscoelastic deformation of the crust, its thermal evolution, and the motion of the boundary.

The viscoelastic deformation, i.e. deformation with dissipation, is due to the varying tidal action of Saturn, and the response depends on the properties of the material, i.e. rigidity, viscosity… The law ruling the behavior of the ice is here the Andrade law… basically it is a Maxwell rheology at low frequencies, i.e. elastic behavior for very slow deformations, viscoelastic behavior when the deformations gets faster… and for very fast excitation frequencies (tidal frequencies), the Maxwell model, which is based on one parameter (the Maxwell time, which gives an idea of the period of excitation at the transition between elastic and viscoelastic behavior), underestimates the dissipation. This is where the more complex Andrade model is useful. The excitation frequencies are taken in the variations of the distance Titan-Saturn, which are ruled by the gravitational perturbations of the Sun, of the rings, of the other satellites…

These deformations and excitations are responsible for variations of the temperature, which are also ruled by physical properties of the material (density, thermal conductivity), and which will determine whether the water should be solid or liquid. As a consequence, they will induce a motion of the phase change boundary.

Resolution by spectral decomposition

The equations ruling the variables of the problem are complex, in particular because they are coupled. Moreover, we should not forget that the density, thickness, temperature, resulting heat flows… not only depend on time, but also on where you are on the surface of Titan, i.e. the latitude and the longitude. To consider the couplings between the different surface elements, the authors did not use a finite-element modeling, but a spectral method instead.

The idea is to consider that the deformation of the crust is the sum of periodic deformations, with respect to the longitude and latitude. The basic shape is a sphere (order 0). If you want to be a little more accurate, you say that Titan is triaxial (order 2). And if you want to be more accurate, you introduce higher orders, which would induce bulges at non equatorial latitudes, north-south asymmetries for odd orders, etc. It is classical to decompose the tidal potential under a spectral form, and the authors succeeded to solve the equations of the problem in writing down the variables as sums of spherical harmonics.

The role of the grain size

And the main result is that the grain size of the ice plays a major role. In particular, the comparison between the resulting topography and the one measured by the Cassini mission up to the 3rd order shows that we need grains larger than 10 mm to be consistent with the observations. The authors reached an equilibrium in at the most 10 Myr, i.e. the crust is shaped in a few million years. They also addressed the influence of other parameters, like the rigidity of the ice, but with much less significant outcomes. Basically, the location of the melting / crystallization boundary is ruled by the grain size.

In the future

Every new study is another step forward. Others will follow. At least two directions can be expected.

Refinements of the theory

The authors honestly admit that the presence of other compounds in the ocean, like ammonia, is not considered here. Adding such compounds could affect the behavior of the ocean and the phase boundary. This would require at least one additional parameter, i.e. the fraction of ammonia. But the methodology presented here would still be valid, and additional studies would be incremental improvements of this one.
A possible implication of these results is the ocean dynamics, which is pretty difficult to model.

More data?

Another step forward could come from new data. Recently the mission proposal Dragonfly has been selected as a finalist by the NASA’s New Frontiers program. It would be a rotorcraft lander on Titan. Being selected as a finalist is a financial encouragement to refine and mature the concept within the year 2018, before final decision in July 2019 (see video below).

The study and its authors

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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