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Credit: ESA/NASA/Univ. of Arizona, Jakub Friedl combined the Huygens mosaics.


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Jan 18, 2005
Titan's Sinuous Rilles

A major surprise from the Huygens images of Titan was the appearance of “drainage channels.” The dark channels in the mosaic image above bring to mind similar patterns in high altitude images of river systems on Earth. But a closer inspection uncovers details that are more characteristic of electrical flows than of liquid flows. And not unexpectedly, these channels are indistinguishable from channels on Mars, Venus, the Moon and most other solid bodies in the solar system. All of these channels are the result of cosmic electrical scarring. See TPOD for Dec 30, 2004:

We can be certain of this explanation for the channels on Titan based on particular characteristics evident in the images from Huygens. The feature nicknamed the “airstrip” shows the effects seen in the spark experiment inset: a long, constant-width central channel within a broader cleared channel. The tributary channels of the “airstrip”  are stubby and have no feeder channels. They begin abruptly and tend to join the main channel at near right angles. And as they join it, the main channel does not broaden: Common liquids are incompressible, and an increased volume requires a larger channel. But electrical "flows" can increase their current density in a constant channel size.

In the upper right quadrant we see channels that appear to flow into a dark"lake" or a "sea."  But again a closer inspection reveals that some of the channels start and end at the “shoreline,” which is clearly impossible for any liquid. Some tributaries also leave and rejoin the main channel in the same manner we see in the spark experiment.  And once again we see stubby tributaries that join other channels preferentially at near right angles. The "lake" also shows evidence of dark filamentary scarring, and the "shoreline" shows a larger-scale arcuate scalloping typical of electrical etching.

The light filamentary patterns in the lower left quadrant also suggest an electrical origin.

The dark area may be where material has been electrically removed or etched and the surface burnt or melted by an arc – in the same manner as we see today on Io. The “shoreline” grew brighter as Huygens descended. Marty Tomasko, the Principal Investigator for the Descent Imager Spectral Radiometer, suggested that it might be due to a methane fog hugging the “shore.” The electrical model suggests an alternative – the brightening may be due to steep cliffs along the “shoreline,” where electrical etching has exposed lighter material.

The "drainage channel" interpretation reveals the bias of geocentric and anthropocentric presumptions peculiar to our origins on the relatively (or at least recently) plasma-free surface of the Earth. In the rest of the universe electrical plasma effects dominate. Now that our sensors have entered that other domain, we need at least to consider electrical interpretations of the surprising phenomena we discover. In doing so we must be prepared to discard the old fables we have been taught about the history of Titan, Saturn and the solar system.


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Michael Armstrong

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