Sunlight Glints from Lake on Saturn’s Moon

NASA's Cassini spacecraft spotted the first reflection off a northern lake on Saturn's moon Titan
Cassini's infrared vision allowed it to peer through the clouds and catch the sunlight sparkling on one of Titan's lakes. NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

A haze of methane enshrouds Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and prevents scientists from seeing most sunlight reflections off the surface. But NASA’s Cassini orbiter managed to snap a stunning image of sunlight glinting off a huge, liquid methane lake — a smoking gun that confirms liquid in the northern hemisphere.

Titan remains the only other planetary body besides Earth known to have liquid on its surface, and appears eerily similar to our world as far as rain and other weather patterns. But instead of liquid water, methane and ethane drizzle down from Titan’s atmosphere and fill the many lakes dotting the moon.

The newly revealed visual and infrared image was taken back on July 8, just as the sun had begun to directly shine upon the northern lakes near the start of spring on Titan. Scientists matched the reflection to the southern shoreline of Kraken Mare, a lake that covers almost 150,000 square miles and sits in the northern hemisphere.

“I was instantly excited because the glint reminded me of an image of our own planet taken from orbit around Earth, showing a reflection of sunlight on an ocean,” said Katrin Stephan, a Cassini scientist at the German Aerospace Center in Berlin. “But we also had to do more work to make sure the glint we were seeing wasn’t lightning or an erupting volcano.”

A future NASA mission might even land a ship-like capsule in Kraken Mare, so that we can get up-close images of choppy methane waves.