Rising 10,948 feet above the cold surface is Titan’s tallest peak. It calls Mithrim Montes, a trio of mountainous ridges, home.
Did you know: Fans of J. R. R. Tolkien and Middle Earth will instantly recognize Mithrim. Mithrim Montes isn’t the only Titan feature to take its name from Middle Earth. All of Titan’s mountains, mountain ranges and hills take their name from J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous work. There’s Misty Montes (named after the Misty Mountains), Mindolluin Montes (one of the White Mountains), Doom Mons (named after Mount Doom), Irensaga Montes (another one of the White Mountains) and Erebor Mons (the Lonely Mountain).
Mountains of Titan.
Small hills take their name from Middle Earth characters. Arwen, Bilbo, Faramir, Gandalf, Handir and Nimloth all have small hills on Titan.
Frank Herbert’s Dune universe is also used to name low plains on Titan. Each one is named after planets including Arrakis Planitia and Caladan Planitia.
“It’s not only the highest point we’ve found so far on Titan, but we think it’s the highest point we’re likely to find,” said Stephen Wall. He serves as deputy lead of the Cassini radar team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The images captured by Cassini are radar images. Because Titan is covered in clouds, scientists use radar images to tease out details.
The areas that appear bright show materials that are rough and scatter the radar waves beamed down by Cassini. Darker areas show materials that are smoother and absorb the radar waves.
Why are scientists taking another look at Titan’s highest mountains? Besides being the final frontier, the latest observations started as a hunt for active areas within Titan’s crust. They were looking for regions where the moon’s landscape has been shaped in the relatively recent past.
“As explorers, we’re motivated to find the highest or deepest places, partly because it’s exciting. But Titan’s extremes also tell us important things about forces affecting its evolution,” says Jani Radebaugh, who led the new research.
Scientists don’t quite have an explanation for Titan’s towering mountain peaks. But they do know why they don’t reach heights seen on Earth.
The moon’s frozen crust rests on top a deep ocean of liquid water. That’s a bit different than the Earth’s upper mantle which is made up of hot, high-pressure rock that can flow around over time. Titan’s water-ice bedrock is also much softer than on Earth.
For these mountains to exist at all on the wet, icy moon – tectonic forces would probably be responsible. Scientists point to Titan’s rotation, Saturn’s strong gravitational pull or cooling of the moon’s crust as potential answers to Titan’s mountains.
“There is lot of value in examining the topography of Titan in a broad, global sense, since it tells us about forces acting on the surface from below as well as above,” said Radebaugh.
Cassini preps for Titan flyby
In just over nine days, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will soar once more past Saturn’s largest moon. This flyby (at 615 miles away) will focus on atmosphere observations. It marks the first and only flyby of Titan that allows the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) and the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) to observe Titan’s atmosphere at the same time at the same latitude.
Cassini will conduct monthly flybys past Titan nearly every month (skips October) through November. The spacecraft will take observations of the moon ranging from atmosphere and gravity measurements to maps of the cloud-covered surface.
Despite years of study by the Cassini probe, Titan and the entire Saturn system still has countless mysteries waiting to be solved.
Image credits: NASA