NASA has a strong interest in continued exploration of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The unusual satellite holds many possibilities in the search for life on other worlds, in the possibilities for colonization, and in understanding how Earth itself formed.
Titan’s surface is terrestrial, made mostly of rocks and water-ice, and large pools of stabilized liquid dominate its surface. These lakes have been assumed to be comprised of hydrocarbons, probably methane, which is a great source of fuel here on Earth.
The gravitational pull of Titan is sufficient to retain its atmosphere over time, as evidenced by its continued presence. The atmosphere itself is comprised mostly of nitrogen, and filled with ethane and methane clouds. It even has wind and rain, and a type of organic smog. The methane cycle of Titan has been compared to our own water-based cycle here on Earth.
Cassini’s most recent flyby on Wednesday has helped NASA to understand Titan much better. Because they had discovered Ligeia Mare’s lake to be as flat as the surface of a mirror, probably due to a lack of wind when they examined it, NASA decided to use that surface to their advantage.
Cassini bounced radio signals off the mirror-like surface on Wednesday using a technique called bistatic scattering and aimed the data back to Earth, where we were able to observe and interpret it. Along with previous data we’ve gathered in the past, we have compiled enough information to get a good idea what Titan’s surface would be like. We now know that its surface is very much like that of Earth’s, with dunes and deserts, mountains and valleys. Using another technique called radio occultation, we learned the temperatures vary by altitude, and we also know the world experiences seasons.
Scientists believe that Titan is an excellent model of how primitive Earth must have looked. The main reason Earth developed life and Titan theoretically has not is the lack of oxygen and water there.
NASA and others are still convinced that the building blocks for life, or life itself, may be present on Titan. They hope to send a drone there to gather even more data to confirm or deny this.
[image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech]