Scientists have just witnessed Titan’s astonishing surface for the first time

The largest moon of Saturn is an unique habitat in our Solar System. It appears to be a world different from our own, with its methane-filled lakes, freezing volcanoes, and underground tunnels. However, Titan’s first geomorphological map demonstrates that, while its landscape is spectacular and diverse, these elements actually make it surprisingly similar to Earth.

Titan is the only other body in the Solar System known to have stable liquid on its surface except Earth. Titan’s lakes, rivers, and seas, on the other hand, are made of the liquid methane and ethane that rains down from its clouds. Titan is also the only moon with a considerable atmosphere and dense enough air to allow a person to walk over its harsh terrain without a spacesuit (though you’d have some additional problems to cope with, what with the methane rain and lakes…).

Titan’s liquid is very exciting for another reason: the moon may harbour life in the layer of water that runs beneath its frozen surface.

This new map points out the countless lakes, dunes, craters, and plains. According to the report, these various traits may have arisen as a result of the same geological process that occurred on Earth.

Titan’s lakes, dunes, and flat plains are depicted in unparalleled detail in the first geological depiction of the planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“Despite the differences in materials, temperatures, and gravity fields between Earth and Titan, many surface features are similar and can be interpreted as products of the same geologic processes,” Rosaly Lopes, a planetary geologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and lead author of the new study, said in a statement.

The map was built using data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Cassini was launched on October 15, 1997, to research Saturn and its moons, and it performed 120 flybys of Titan.

On September 15, 2017, the spacecraft crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, effectively terminating its 20-year mission.

Cassini employed radar imaging to peer through Titan’s dense atmosphere of methane and nitrogen, as well as infrared equipment to see the planet’s bigger geological formations.

“The Cassini mission revealed that Titan is a geologically active world, where hydrocarbons like methane and ethane take the role that water has on Earth,” David Williams, associate research professor at Arizona State University and a co-author on the study, said in a statement. “These hydrocarbons rain down on the surface, flow in streams and rivers, accumulate in lakes and seas, and evaporate into the atmosphere. It’s quite an astounding world!”


NASA thinks that by taking advantage of Titan’s rich atmosphere and low gravity, its craft Dragonfly will be able to explore dozens of spots throughout the frozen globe – and maybe discover signs of life. NASA/JHU-APL

In the year 2026, NASA is planning an expedition to better investigate this unique world. The Dragonfly mission will collect and return samples from the frozen moon to Earth. It is also hoped that traces of life may be discovered, which could be the first indication that humans are not as cosmologically unique as we believe.

Reference(s): Nature Astronomy

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