To create a global map, Lorenz and his colleagues used a mathematical process called "splining," which uses smooth, curved surfaces to stitch together grids of existing data.
"You can take a spot where there is no data, look how close it is to the nearest data, and use various approaches of averaging and estimating to calculate your best guess," Lorenz said. "If you pick a point, and all the nearby points are high altitude, you'd need a special reason for thinking that point would be lower. We're mathematically papering over the gaps in our coverage."
Piecing together the puzzle
Scientists already knew that Titan's polar regions are lower in altitude than regions around the equator, but the new topographic map fills in details that will enable researchers to make more accurate models of how and where Titan's rivers flow, and seasonal distribution of the moon's methane rainfall.
"The movement of sands and the flow of liquids are influenced by slopes, and mountains can trigger cloud formation and therefore rainfall," Lorenz said. "This global product now gives modelers a convenient description of this key factor in Titan's dynamic climate system."
The map was compiled using data from 2012, but Lorenz said it may be updated when the Cassini spacecraft's mission ends in 2017. In the meantime, the scientists are hoping the newly compiled topographical information will spur new research on Titan.
"With this new topographic map, one of the most fascinating and dynamic worlds in our solar system now pops out in 3D," Steve Wall, deputy team leader of Cassini's radar team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement. "On Earth, rivers, volcanoes and even weather are closely related to heights of surfaces — we're now eager to see what we can learn from them on Titan."
The map was published in the July 2013 issue of the journal Icarus.
Copyright 2013 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.