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Saturn moon Titan's thick shell suggests bizarre interior

Scientists have found that the tough shell of Saturn's largest moon Titan is stronger than previously thought and hints at an unusual interior.

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This rigidity could mean Titan's shell is less geologically active than once thought. "If at least the top 40 kilometers (25 miles) is very stiff and cold and dead, if you want something like cryovolcanoes that erupt water instead of lava on Titan's surface, you have to be more creative about how that might happen," Hemingway said.

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Their model also suggests Titan's shell has seen an extensive amount of erosion, with features carved more than 650 feet (200 meters) deep on it surface. "We now need different groups of people to figure out how so much material could get broken up and transported long distances across Titan's surface," Hemingway said.

One implication of these new findings relates to whether or not Titan's interior is separated into distinct layers. If researchers have underestimated Titan's gravity field, one might suspect its core is a giant blob of matter that is not made up of distinct layers as one would expect from such a large body. For instance, Earth is separated into a crust, mantle and core, and even large asteroids such as Vesta seem to have interiors divided into several layers.

"Maybe Titan is a mixture of ice and rock from the core nearly all the way out, and it's only in the last part near its surface that it's differentiated into ice and water," Hemingway said. "But we could be wrong there."

To help solve this mystery, "what we need is a Titan orbiter," Hemingway said. "That way we can have much better readings of Titan and learn more about its ice shell and its interior."

The scientists detailed their findings in the Aug. 29 issue of the journal Nature.

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