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A Salty Surprise: Ocean on Saturn's Titan Moon Possibly as Salty as the Dead Sea

Jul 02, 2014 06:57 PM EDT
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Scientists analyzing data from NASA's Cassini mission have evidence that the ocean inside Saturn's largest moon, Titan, might be as salty as the Dead Sea here on Earth.

With Cassini data obtained over the last 10 years, researchers have been able to better understand Titan's outer ice shell, thereby revealing its salty ocean.

"Titan continues to prove itself as an endlessly fascinating world, and with our long-lived Cassini spacecraft, we're unlocking new mysteries as fast as we solve old ones," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Cali., who was not involved in the study, said in the statement.

The ocean is most likely composed of extremely salty water, mixed with dissolved salts likely composed of sulfur, sodium and potassium. The density indicated for this brine indicates that the ocean's salt content is roughly equivalent to the saltiest bodies of water on Earth, like the Dead Sea, which borders Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

"This is an extremely salty ocean by Earth standards," said lead author, Giuseppe Mitri of the University of Nantes in France. "Knowing this may change the way we view this ocean as a possible abode for present-day life, but conditions might have been very different there in the past."

The findings also support scientists' previous belief that the moon's icy shell is rigid and in the process of freezing solid. Its icy crust varies slightly from place to place - a phenomenon that is best explained if the moon's outer shell is stiff, as would be the case if the ocean were slowly crystalizing and turning to ice. And while the discovery is exciting, because of Titan's rigid ice shell, scientists believe the ocean isn't habitable.

The findings were published in this week's edition of the journal Icarus.

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