Gauging the strength of ancient and active rivers beyond Earth — ScienceDaily | Science & Technology

Rivers have flowed on two other worlds in the solar system besides Earth: Mars, where dry tracks and craters are all that’s left of ancient rivers and lakes, and Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, where rivers of liquid methane still flow today.

A new technique developed by MIT geologists allows scientists to see how intensely rivers used to flow on Mars, and how they currently flow on Titan. The method uses satellite observations to estimate the rate at which rivers move fluid and sediment downstream.

Applying their new technique, the MIT team calculated how fast and deep rivers were in certain regions on Mars more than 1 billion years ago. They also made similar estimates for currently active rivers on Titan, even though the moon’s thick atmosphere and distance from Earth make it harder to explore, with far fewer available images of its surface than those of Mars.

“What’s exciting about Titan is that it’s active. With this technique, we have a method to make real predictions for a place where we won’t get more data for a long time,” says Taylor Perron, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “And on Mars, it gives us a time machine, to take the rivers that are dead now and get a sense of what they were like when they were actively flowing.”

Perron and his colleagues have published their results today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Perron’s MIT co-authors are first author Samuel Birch, Paul Corlies, and Jason Soderblom, with Rose Palermo and Andrew Ashton of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), Gary Parker of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and collaborators from the University of California at Los Angeles, Yale University, and Cornell University.

River math

The team’s study grew out of Perron and Birch’s puzzlement over Titan’s rivers. The images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft have shown a curious lack of fan-shaped deltas at the mouths of…

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