Looking like something out of a Tim Burton movie, the eerie shapes seen above are part of a cloud of gas and dust located 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus. First identified in 1966, the human-like figures with “arms” raised give the nebula its spooky nickname: the “Ghost Nebula”.
This soon-to-be historic image, released today, shows a glint of sunlight reflecting off the surface of a lake on Titan.
Taken by the Cassini spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) in July 2009, the image has been extensively researched by scientists to make sure it was in fact a reflection off of a liquid surface and not from another source, like lightning or a volcanic eruption. Eventually it was determined that this is, in fact, the effect of sunlight hitting the surface of a large lake on Titan’s northern hemisphere known as Kraken Mare.
“This one image communicates so much about Titan — thick atmosphere, surface lakes and an otherworldliness.”
– Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist
At over 150,000 square miles, Kraken Mare is larger than the Caspian Sea and is filled with extremely frigid liquid methane. Although not water like we have here on Earth, the existence of stable surface liquid of any sort is an important find for planetary scientists. In our solar system only Earth – and now Titan – are known to have surface liquids.
Liquid was found in a lake near Titan’s south pole in 2008 but hasn’t been confirmed in the northern hemisphere until now, when the sun’s light was able to pierce the moon’s thick atmosphere during the advance of the spring equinox.
This iconic image will be presented today at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR