Titan is drifting away

Rodiano Bonacci
Giugno 12, 2020

After decades of studying Saturn's moon Titan, scientists have discovered it is drifting away from the ringed planet 100 times faster than previously believed.

Some of you may be aware that the Moon is slipping the bonds of Earth, migrating outwards by about 3.5cm per year.

Recent data received from the Cassini spacecraft of NASA revealed that the Moon Titan is drifting 100 times faster than what the scientists had originally thought, moving 4 inches or 11 centimeters every year.

According to a new study, Saturn's largest moon was "born" fairly close to the planet, but over the course of 4.5 billion years, it has migrated out to where it orbits now, approximately 746,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) away from the planet.

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Previous studies have predicted that moon's like Titan formed at an orbital distance closer to their current positions.

His theory notes that Titan is expected to gravitationally squeeze Saturn with a particular frequency that makes the planet oscillate strongly, similarly to how swinging your legs on a swing with the right timing can drive you higher and higher. The entire Saturnian system must have expanded more rapidly than what is conventionally believed, according to these findings.

Four years ago, theoretical astrophysicist Jim Fuller, now of Caltech, published research that upended those theories. The energy created by this bulging and subsiding eventually transfers from the host planet to the moon, causing it to drift farther and farther away. These were applied to all the moons in the solar system. To confirm their findings, they compared them with an independent dataset: radio science data collected by Cassini.

"The new measurements imply that these kind of planet-moon interactions can be more prominent than prior expectations and that they can apply to many systems, such as other planetary moon systems, exoplanets - those outside our solar system - and even binary star systems, where stars orbit each other", Fuller added.

Managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Cassini was an orbiter that observed Saturn for more than 13 years before plunging into the planet's atmosphere in September 2017 once it had exhausted its fuel supply. One team used a technique called astrometry, in which astronomers precisely measure the positions and movements of stars and other celestial objects to determine Titan's position in relation to those "nearby" objects, as seen in images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. During ten close flybys between 2006 and 2016, the spacecraft sent radio waves to Earth.

"By using two completely different datasets, we obtained results that are in full agreement, and also in agreement with our new theory, which predicted a much faster migration of Titan", said co-author Dr. Paolo Tortora, a scientist at the University of Bologna. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

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