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SAN FRANCISCO — Three icy volcanoes line up on Saturn’s moon Titan, giving some of the best evidence yet that explosive eruptions are possible on worlds beyond Earth. The volcanic peaks and pits lie in a region called Sotra Facula on Titan’s southern hemisphere. The mountains rise more than 3,000 feet into the air, and the deepest hole sinks nearly 5,000 feet below the surrounding plains, geologists announced in a press conference here at the American Geophysical Union meeting Dec. 14.
Titan is the only body in the solar system other than Earth to have lakes, rivers, clouds, and a cycle of evaporation and mist or rainfall connecting them all. But on Titan, where temperatures hover around minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the flowing liquids are hydrocarbons like methane and ethane, not water. The frigid moon is shrouded in a dense, hazy atmosphere of methane and other hydrocarbons. But astronomers think all the methane should have been broken apart by sunlight millions of years ago, suggesting that something on Titan is constantly pouring fresh methane into the atmosphere.
An icy volcano, also known as a cryovolcano, could be the methane pump scientists sought. But until now, the telltale peaks and flows indicating a volcanic eruption had been hidden. New radar data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has helped astronomers build a 3-D topographical map of Sotra Facula. They saw three mountains lined up in a row. The most obvious one, which the scientists dubbed the Rose, is a single peak with a bite taken out of it and a crater 5,000 feet deep to its side. A second peak, shaped like a football stadium, lies nearby, and a third is to the north.