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Planetary Researchers Shed New Light on Origins of Titan’s Topographic Relief

Saturn’s hazy moon Titan, Earth and Mars have all hosted rivers at some point in their histories. Planetary researchers from the City University of New York (CUNY) and elsewhere analyzed drainage patterns on all three bodies to shed light on their geologic past.

It’s raining on Titan. Image credit: David A. Hardy, AstroArt / NASA.

It’s raining on Titan. Image credit: David A. Hardy, AstroArt / NASA.

Titan’s landscapes look similar to Earth’s in many ways. But is this similarity only superficial?

Dr. Benjamin Black, an assistant professor of earth and atmospheric science at CUNY, and his colleagues have found that the origins of topography on Titan — and Mars — are quite different from on Earth.

“River networks give us a window into the history of each world,” the researchers said.

“Most topography on Earth is the result of plate tectonics, which builds mountain ranges that jut up and shunt aside rivers as they flow towards the oceans.”

“No one knows for sure what built the topography on Titan, but we discovered that the rivers there have not suffered similar diversions as on Earth.”

“This provides evidence that the history of topography on Titan is more like that of Mars, which did not have plate tectonics, and where the largest scale topography was set very early after Mars’ formation.”

The team used mapping, analysis of spacecraft data, and numerical modeling to glean clues from river networks.

“What we can see of Titan’s surface looks tantalizingly familiar, at least at first glance. But we know very little about Titan’s past,” Dr. Black said.

“On Earth, the upheaval of plate tectonics diverts rivers.”

“When we compared river patterns on Earth with those on Mars and Titan, we found substantial differences, suggesting Mars and Titan grow their topography in distinctly un-Earth-like fashion.”

“You could say that the history of each world is written in its rivers.”

Since the validation of plate-tectonic theory in the 1960s, researchers have wondered what Earth’s surface would look like if our planet did not have plate tectonics.

“One of the exciting things about this study is that it provides evidence that Earth’s topography is quantitatively different from that of Mars and Titan, two planetary bodies without plate tectonics,” said Georgia Tech researcher Dr. Ken Ferrier, who was not involved in the study.

“This evidence is encoded in river channel networks, which the authors suggest harbor a heretofore unrecognized signature of plate tectonics.”

Dr. Black and co-authors suggest that the river networks of Earth, Mars, and Titan could serve as a ‘Rosetta stone’ to help planetary researchers decode the impact of tectonics on topography.

The findings were published in the May 19 issue of the journal Science.

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Benjamin A. Black et al. 2017. Global drainage patterns and the origins of topographic relief on Earth, Mars, and Titan. Science 356 (6339): 727-731; doi: 10.1126/science.aag0171