Jupiter’s Moon Callisto

With 67 confirmed satellites, Jupiter has the largest system of moons in the Solar System. The greatest of these are the four major moons of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – otherwise known as the Galilean Moons. Named in honor of their founder, these moons are not only comparable in size to some planets (such as Mercury), they are also some of the few places outside of Earth where liquid water exists, and perhaps even life.

But it is Callisto, the fourth and farthest moon of Jupiter, that may be the most rewarding when it comes to scientific research. In addition to the possibility of a subsurface ocean, this moon is the only Galilean far enough outside of Jupiter’s powerful magnetosphere that it does not experience harmful levels of radiation. This, and the prospect of finding life, make Callisto a prime candidate for future exploration.

Discovery and Naming:

Along with Io, Europa and Ganymede, Callisto was discovered in January of 1610 by Galileo Galilei using a telescope of his own design. Like all the Galilean Moons, it takes its name from one of Zeus’ lovers in classic Greek mythology. Callisto was a nymph (or the daughter of Lycaon) who was associated with the goddess of the hunt, Artemis.

The name was suggested by German astronomer Simon Marius, apparently at the behest of Johannes Kepler. However, Galileo initially refused to use them, and the moons named in his honor were designed as Jupiter I through IV, based on their proximity to their parent planet. Being the farthest planet from Jupiter, Callisto was known as Jupiter IV until the 20th century, by which time, the names suggested by Marius were adopted.

Galilean Family Portrait
The Galilean moons to scale, with Callisto in the bottom left corner. Credit: NASA/JPL

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 2410.3 ± 1.5 km (0.378 Earths) and a mass of 1.0759 × 1023 kg (0.018 Earths), Callisto is the second largest Jupiter’s moons (after Ganymede) and the third largest satellite in the solar system. Much like Ganymede, it is comparable in size to Mercury – being 99% as large – but due to its mixed composition, it has less than one-third of Mercury mass.

Callisto orbits Jupiter at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,882,700 km. It has a very minor eccentricity (0.0074) and ranges in distance from 1,869,000 km at periapsis to 1,897,000 km at apoapsis. This distance, which is far greater than Ganymede’s, means that Callisto does not take part in the mean-motion resonance that Io, Europa and Ganymede do.

Much like the other Galileans, Callisto’s rotation is synchronous with its orbit. This means that it takes the same amount of time (16.689 days) for Callisto to complete a single orbit of Jupiter and a single rotation on its axis. Its orbit is very slightly eccentric and inclined to the Jovian equator, with the eccentricity and inclination changing over the course of centuries due to solar and planetary gravitational perturbations.

Size comparison of Earth, Moon and Callisto. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR/Gregory H. Revera
Size comparison of Earth, Moon and Callisto. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR/Gregory H. Revera

Unlike the other Galileans, Callisto’s distant orbit means that it has never experienced much in the way of tidal-heating, which has had a profound impact on its internal structure and evolution. Its distance from Jupiter also means that the charged particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere have had a very minor influence on its surface.

Composition and Surface Features:

The average density of Callisto, at 1.83 g/cm3, suggests a composition of approximately equal parts of rocky material and water ice, with some additional volatile ices such as ammonia. Ice is believed to constitute 49-55% of the moon, with the rock component likely made up of chondrites, silicates and iron oxide.

Callisto’s surface composition is thought to be similar to its composition as a whole, with water ice constituting 25-50% of its overall mass. High-resolution, near-infrared and UV spectra imaging have revealed the presence of various non-ice materials, such as magnesium and iron-bearing hydrated silicates, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and possibly ammonia and various organic compounds.

Model of Callisto's internal structure showing a surface ice layer, a possible liquid water layer, and an ice–rock interior. Credit: NASA/JPL
Model of Callisto’s internal structure showing a surface ice layer, a possible liquid water layer, and an ice–rock interior. Credit: NASA/JPL

Beneath the surface is an icy lithosphere that is between 80-150 m thick. A salty ocean 50–200 km deep is believed to exist beneath this, thanks to the presence of radioactive elements and the possible existence of ammonia. Evidence of this ocean include Jupiter’s magnetic field, which shows no signs of penetrating Callisto’s surface. This suggests a layer of highly conductive fluid that is at least 10 km in depth. However, if this water contains ammonia, which is more likely, than it could be up to 250-300 km.

Beneath this hypothetical ocean, Callisto’s interior appears to be composed of compressed rocks and ices, with the amount of rock increasing with depth. This means, in effect, that Callisto is only partially differentiated, with a small silicate core no larger than 600 km (and a density of 3.1-3.6 g/cm³) surrounded by a mix of ice and rock.

Spectral data has also indicated that Callisto’s surface is extremely heterogeneous at the small scale. Basically, the surface consists of small, bright patches of pure water ice, intermixed with patches of a rock–ice mixture, and extended dark areas made of a non-ice material.

Compared to the other Galilean Moons, Callisto’s surface is quite dark, with a surface albedo of about 20%. Another difference is the nature of its asymmetric appearance. Whereas with the other Galileans, the leading hemisphere is lighter than the trailing one, with Callisto the opposite is true.

Interior density structures created by an outer solar system late heavy bombardment onto Ganymede (top row) and Callisto (bottom row). Credit: SwRI
Interior density structures created by an outer solar system late heavy bombardment onto Ganymede (top row) and Callisto (bottom row). Credit: SwRI

An immediately obvious feature about Callisto’s surface is the ancient and heavily cratered nature of it. In fact, the surface is the most cratered in the Solar System and is almost entirely saturated by craters, with newer ones having formed over older ones. What’s more, impact craters and their associated structures are the only large features on the surface. There are no mountains, volcanoes or other endogenic tectonic features.

Callisto’s impact craters range in size from 0.1 km to over 100 km, not counting the multi-ring structures. Small craters, with diameters less than 5 km, have simple bowl or flat-floored shapes, whereas those that measure 5–40 km usually have a central peak.

Larger impact features, with diameters that range from 25–100 km have central pits instead of peaks. Those with diameters over 60 km can have central domes, which are thought to result from central tectonic uplift after an impact.

The largest impact features on Callisto’s surface are multi-ring basins, which probably originated as a result of post-impact concentric fracturing which took place over a patch of lithosphere that overlay a section of soft or liquid material (possibly a patch of the interior ocean). The largest of these are Valhalla and Asgard, whose central, bright regions measure 600 and 1600 km in diameter (respectively) with rings extending farther outwards.

Voyager 1 image of Valhalla, a multi-ring impact structure 3800 km in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL
Voyager 1 image of Valhalla, a multi-ring impact structure 3800 km in diameter. Credit: NASA/JPL

The relative ages of the different surface units on Callisto can be determined from the density of impact craters on them – the older the surface, the denser the crater population. Based on theoretical considerations, the cratered plains are thought to be ~4.5 billion years old, dating back almost to the formation of the Solar System.

The ages of multi-ring structures and impact craters depend on chosen background cratering rates, and are estimated by different researchers to vary between 1 and 4 billion years of age.


Callisto has a very tenuous atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide which has an estimated surface pressure of 7.5  × 10-¹² bar (0.75 micro Pascals) and a particle density of 4 × 108 cm-3. Because such a thin atmosphere would be lost in only about 4 days, it must be constantly replenished, possibly by slow sublimation of carbon dioxide ice from Callisto’s icy crust.

While it has not been directly detected, it is believed that molecular oxygen exists in concentrations 10-100 times greater than CO². This is evidenced by the high electron density of the planet’s ionosphere, which cannot be explained by the photoionization of carbon dioxide alone. However, condensed oxygen has been detected on the surface of Callisto, trapped within its icy crust.


Much like Europa and Ganymede, and Saturn’s moons of Enceladus, Mimas, Dione, Titan, the possible existence of a subsurface ocean on Callisto has led many scientists to speculate about the possibility of life. This is particularly likely if the interior ocean is made up of salt-water, since halophiles (which thrive in high salt concentrations) could live there.

In addition, the possibility of extra-terrestrial microbial life has also been raised with respect to Callisto. However, the environmental conditions necessary for life to appear (which include the presence of sufficient heat due to tidal flexing) are more likely on Europa and Ganymede. The main difference is the lack of contact between the rocky material and the interior ocean, as well as the lower heat flux in Callisto’s interior.

In essence, while Callisto possesses the necessary pre-biotic chemistry to host life, it lacks the necessary energy. Because of this, the most likely candidate for the existence of extra-terrestrial life in Jupiter’s system of moons remains Europa.


The first exploration missions to Callisto were the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts, which conducted flybys of the Galilean moon in 1973 and 1974, respectively, But these missions provided little additional information beyond what had already learned through Earth-based observations. In contrast, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which conducted flybys of the moon in 1979, managed to image more than half the surface and precisely measured Callisto’s temperature, mass and shape.

Capturing Callisto
New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) captured these two images of Jupiter’s outermost large moon, Callisto, during its flyby in February 2007. Credit: NASA/JPL

Further exploration took place between 1994 and 2003, when the Galileo spacecraft performed eight close flybys with Callisto. The orbiter completed the global imaging of the surface and delivered a number of pictures with a resolution as high as 15 meters. In 2000, while en route to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft acquired high-quality infrared spectra of the Galilean satellites, including Callisto.

In February–March 2007, while en route to Pluto, the New Horizons probe obtained new images and spectra of Callisto. Using its Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA) instrument, the probe was able to reveal how lighting and viewing conditions affect infrared spectrum readings of its surface water ice.

The next planned mission to the Jovian system is the European Space Agency’s Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE), due to launch in 2022. Ostensibly geared towards exploring Europa and Ganymede, the mission profile also includes several close flybys of Callisto.


Compared to the other Galileans, Callisto presents numerous advantages as far as colonization is concerned. Much like the others, the moon has an abundant supply of water in the form of surface ice (but also possibly liquid water beneath the surface). But unlike the others, Callisto’s distance from Jupiter means that colonists would have far less to worry about in terms of radiation.

In 2003, NASA conducted a conceptual study called Human Outer Planets Exploration (HOPE) regarding the future human exploration of the outer Solar System. The target chosen to consider in detail was Callisto, for the purposes of investigating the possible existence of life forms embedded in the ice crust on this moon and on Europa.

Artist's impression of a base on Callisto. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of a base on the icy surface of Callisto. Credit: NASA

The study proposed a possible surface base on Callisto where a crew could “teleoperate a Europa submarine and excavate Callisto surface samples near the impact site”. In addition, this base could extract water from Callisto’s ample supply of water ices to produce rocket propellant for further exploration of the Solar System.

The advantages of a base on Callisto include low radiation (due to its distance from Jupiter) and geological stability. Such a base could facilitate exploration on other Galilean Moons, and be an ideal location for a Jovian system way station, servicing spacecraft heading farther into the outer Solar System – which would likely take the form of craft using a gravity assist from a close flyby of Jupiter.

Reports filed by NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Langley Research Center – in December and February of 2003, respectively – both outlined possible manned missions to Callisto, as envisioned by HOPE. According to these reports, a mission that would likely involve a ship using a Mangetoplasmadynamic (MPD) or Nuclear-Electric Propulsion (NEP) drive system, and equipped to generate artificial gravity, could be mounted in the 2040s.

So while Callisto may not be the best target in the search for extra-terrestrial life, it may be the most hospitable of Jupiter’s moons for human life. In either case, any future missions to Jupiter will likely include a stopovers to Callisto, with the intent of investigating both of these possibilities.

We have many great articles on Callisto, Jupiter, and its system of moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about how impacts effected Callisto’s interior, And here is one on all of the Galilean Moons.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Callisto.

Astronomy Cast offers has a good episode on the subject, titled Episode 57: Jupiter’s Moons.

Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede


In 1610, Galileo Galilei looked up at the night sky through a telescope of his own design. Spotting Jupiter, he noted the presence of several “luminous objects” surrounding it, which he initially took for stars. In time, he would notice that these “stars” were orbiting the planet, and realized that they were in fact Jupiter’s moons – which would come to be named Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

Of these, Ganymede is the largest, and boasts many fascinating characteristics. In addition to being the largest moon in the Solar System, it is also larger than even the planet Mercury. It is the only satellite in the Solar System known to possess a magnetosphere, has a thin oxygen atmosphere, and (much like its fellow-moons, Europa and Callisto) is believed to have an interior ocean.

Continue reading “Jupiter’s Moon Ganymede”

Surveying the “Fossils of Planet Formation”: The Lucy Mission

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for mission proposals, one or two of which will have the honor of taking part in Discovery Mission Thirteen. Hoping to focus the next round of exploration efforts to places other than Mars, the five semifinalists (which were announced this past September) include proposed missions to Venus, Near-Earth Objects, and asteroids.

When it comes to asteroid exploration, one of the possible contenders is Lucy – a proposed reconnaissance orbiter that would study Jupiter‘s Trojan Asteroids. In addition to being the first mission of its kind, examining the Trojans Asteroids could also lead to several scientific finds that will help us to better understand the history of the Solar System.

By definition, Trojan are populations of asteroids that share their orbit with other planets or moons, but do not collide with it because they orbit in one of the two Lagrangian points of stability. The most significant population of Trojans in the Solar System are Jupiter’s, with a total of 6,178 having been found as of January 2015. In accordance with astronomical conventions, objects found in this population are named after mythical figures from the Trojan War.

There are two main theories as to where Jupiter’s Trojans came from. The first suggests that they formed in the same part of the Solar System as Jupiter and were caught by the gas giant’s gravity as it accumulated hydrogen and helium from the protoplanetary disk. Since they would have shared the same approximate orbit as the forming gas giant, they would have been caught in its gravity and orbited it ever since.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The asteroids of the Inner Solar System and Jupiter. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The second theory, part of the Nice model, proposes that the Jupiter Trojans were captured about 500-600 million years after the Solar System’s formation. During this period Uranus, Neptune – and to a lesser extent, Saturn – moved outward, whereas Jupiter moved slightly inward. This migration could have destabilized the primordial Kuiper Belt, throwing millions of objects into the inner Solar System, some of which Jupiter then captured.

In either case, the presence of Trojan asteroids around Jupiter can be traced back to the early Solar System. Studying them therefore presents an opportunity to learn more about its history and formation. And if in fact the Trojans are migrant from the Kuiper Belt, it would also be a chance for scientists to learn more about the most distant reaches of the solar system without having to send a mission all the way out there.

The mission would be led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, with the Goddard Space Center managing the project. Its targets would most likely include asteroid (3548) Eurybates, (21900) 1999 VQ10, (11351) 1997 TS25, and the binary (617) Patroclus/Menoetius.  It would also visit a main-belt asteroid (1981 EQ5) on the way.

The spacecraft would perform scans of the asteroids and determine their geology, surface features, compositions, masses and densities using a sophisticated suite of remote-sensing and radio instruments. In addition, during it’s proposed 11-year mission, Lucy would also gather information on the asteroids thermal and other physical properties from close range.

Artit's concept of the Trojan asteroids. By sheer number, small bodies dominate our solar system — and NASA's latest Discovery competition. Credit: NASA artist's concept - See more at: http://spacenews.com/small-bodies-dominate-nasas-latest-discovery-competition/#sthash.pOgot1ye.dpuf
Artist’s concept of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids hovering in the foreground in Jupiter’s path, with the “Greeks” at left in the background. Credit: NASA.

The project is named Lucy in honor of one of the most influential human fossils found on Earth. Discovered in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia in 1974, Lucy’s remains – several hundred bone fragments that belonged to a member the hominid species of Australopithecus afarensis – proved to be an extraordinary find that advanced our knowledge of hominid species evolution.

Levison and his team are hoping that a similar find can be made using the probe of the same name. As he and his colleagues describe it, the Lucy mission is aimed at “Surveying the diversity of Trojan asteroids: The fossils of planet formation.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Levinson. “Because the Trojan asteroids are remnants of that primordial material, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. These asteroids are in an area that really is the last population of objects in the solar system to be visited.”

The payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. NASA has also offered an additional $5 to $30 million in funding if mission planners choose to incorporate a laser communications system, a 3D woven heat shield, a Deep Space atomic clock, and/or ion engines.

As one of the semifinalists, the Lucy mission has received $3 million dollars to conduct concept design studies and analyses over the course of the next year. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016. In the end, one or two missions will receive the mission’s budget of $450 million (not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations) and will be launched by 2020 at the earliest.

The Next Generation of Exploration: The NEOCam Mission

In February of 2014, NASA put out the call for submissions for the thirteenth mission of their Discovery Program. In keeping with the program’s goal of mounting low-cost, highly focused missions to explore the Solar System, the latest program is focused on missions that look beyond Mars to new research goals. On September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, which included proposals for sending probes back to Venus, to sending orbiters to study asteroids and Near-Earth Objects.

Among the proposed NEO missions is the Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam. Consisting of a space-based infrared telescope designed to survey the Solar System for potentially hazardous asteroids, the NEOCam would be responsible for discovering and characterizing ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs that have discovered to date.

If deployed, NEOCam will begin discovering approximately one million asteroids in the Main Belt and thousands of comets in the course of its 4 year mission. However, the primary scientific goal of NEOCam is to discover and characterize over two-thirds of the asteroids that are larger that 140 meters, since it is possible some of these might pose a threat to Earth someday.

The NEOCam space telescope will survey the regions of space closest to the Earth's orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids are most likely to be found. NEOCam will use infrared light to characterize their physical properties such as their diameters. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of the NEOCam spacecraft, a proposed mission for NASA’s Discovery program that would search for potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The technical term is Potentially Hazardous Objects (PHO), and it applies to near-Earth asteroids/comets that have an orbit that will allow them to make close approaches to Earth. And measuring more than 140 meters in diameter, they are of sufficient size that they could cause significant regional damage if they struck Earth.

In fact, a study conducted in 2010 through the Imperial College of London and Purdue University found that an asteroid measuring 50-meters across with a density of 2.6 grams per cubic centimeter and a speed of 12.7 kps could generate 2.9 Megatons of airburst energy once it passed through our atmosphere. To put that in perspective, that’s the equivalent of about nine W87 thermonuclear warheads!

By comparison, the meteor that appeared over the small Russian community of Chelyabinsk in 2013 measured only 20 meters across. Nevertheless, the explosive airbust caused by it entering our atmosphere generated only 500 kilotons of energy,  creating a zone of destruction tens of kilometers wide and injuring 1,491 people. One can imagine without much effort how much worse it would have been had the explosion been six times as big!

What’s more, as of August 1st, 2015, NASA has listed a total of 1,605 potentially hazardous asteroids and 85 near-Earth comets. Among these, there are 154 PHAs believed to be larger than one kilometer in diameter. This represents a tenfold increase in discoveries since the end of the 1990s, which is due to several astronomical surveys being performed (as well as improvements in detection methods) over the past two and a half decades.

The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
The NEOCam sensor (right) is the lynchpin for the proposed Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, space mission (left). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As a result, monitoring and characterizing which of these objects is likely to pose a threat to Earth in the future has been a scientific priority in recent years. It is also why the U.S. Congress passed the “George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act” in 2005. Also known as the “NASA Authorization Act of 2005”, this Act of Congress mandated that NASA identify 90% of all NEOs that could pose a threat to Earth.

If deployed, NEOCam will monitor NEOs from the Earth–Sun L1 Lagrange point, allowing it to look close to the Sun and see objects inside Earth’s orbit. To this, NEOCam will rely on a single scientific instrument: a 50 cm diameter telescope that operates at two heat-sensing infrared wavelengths, to detect the even the dark asteroids that are hardest to find.

By using two heat-sensitive infrared imaging channels, NEOCam can also make accurate measurements of NEO and gain valuable information about their sizes, composition, shapes, rotational states, and orbits. As Dr. Amy Mainzer, the Principal Investigator of the NEOCam mission,  explained:

“Everyone wants to know about asteroids hitting the Earth; NEOCam is designed to tackle this issue. We expect that NEOCam will discover about ten times more asteroids than are currently known, plus millions of asteroids in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter. By conducting a comprehensive asteroid survey, NEOCam will address three needs: planetary defense, understanding the origins and evolution of our solar system, and finding new destinations for future exploration.”

Dr. Mainzer is no stranger to infrared imaging for the sake of space exploration. In addition to being the Principal Investigator on this mission and a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, she is also the Deputy Project Scientist for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and the Principal Investigator for the NEOWISE project to study minor planets.

She has also appeared many times on the History Channel series The Universe, the documentary featurette “Stellar Cartography: On Earth”, and serves as the science consultant and host for the live-action PBS Kids series Ready Jet Go!, which will be debuting in the winter of 2016. Under her direction, the NEOCam mission will also study the origin and ultimate fate of our solar system’s asteroids, and finding the most suitable NEO targets for future exploration by robots and humans.

Proposals for NEOCam have been submitted a total of three times to the NASA Discovery Program – in 2006, 2010, and 2015, respectively. In 2010, NEOCam was selected to receive technology development funding to design and test new detectors optimized for asteroid and comet detection and discovery. However, the mission was ultimately overruled in favor of the Mars InSight Lander, which is scheduled for launch in 2016.

As one of the semifinalists for Discovery Mission 13, the NEOCam mission has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. In September of 2016, one or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations), and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

In related news, NASA has confirmed that the asteroid known as 86666 (2000 FL10) will be passing Earth tomorrow. No need to worry, though. At its closest approach, the asteroid will still be at a distance of 892,577 km (554,000 mi) from Earth. Still, every passing rock underlines the need for knowing more about NEOs and where they might be headed one day!

A Mission to a Metal World: The Psyche Mission

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA’s Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of NASA and other scientists and engineers recently selected five semifinalists for additional research and development, one or two of which will be launching by the 2020s.

With an eye to Venus, near-Earth objects and asteroids, these missions are looking beyond Mars to address other questions about the history and formation of our Solar System. Among them is the proposed Psyche mission, a robotic spacecraft that will explore the metallic asteroid of the same name – 16 Psyche – in the hopes of shedding some light on the mysteries of planet formation.

Discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17th, 1852 – and named after a Greek mythological figure – Psyche is one the ten most-massive asteroids in the Asteroid Belt. It is also the most massive M-type asteroid, a special class pertaining to asteroids composed primarily of nickel and iron.

For some time, scientists have speculated that this metallic asteroid is in fact the survivor of a protoplanet. In this scenario, a violent collision with a planetesimal stripped off Psyche’s outer, rocky layers, leaving behind only the dense, metallic interior. This theory is supported by estimates of Psyche’s bulk density, spectra, and radar surface properties; all of which show it to be an object unlike any others in the Belt.

Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.
Promotional artwork for the proposed Psyche mission. Credit: Peter Rubin/JPL-CALTECH.

In addition, this composition of 16 Psyche is strikingly similar to that of Earth’s metal core. Given that astronomers think that larger planets like Venus, Earth and Mars formed from the collision and merger of smaller worlds, Psyche could be the remains of a protoplanet that did not get to create a larger body.

Had such a planetesimal been struck by a large enough object, it would have been able to lose its lower-mass exterior while keeping its core intact. Thus, studying this 250 km (155 mile) wide body, offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the interiors of planets and large moons, whose cores are hidden beneath many miles of rock.

Dr. Linda Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is the Principle Investigator of this mission. As she and her team stated in their mission proposal paper, which was originally submitted as part of the 45th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (2014):

“This mission would be a journey back in time to one of the earliest periods of planetary accretion, when the first bodies were not only differentiating, but were being pulverized, shredded, and accreted by collisions. It is also an exploration, by proxy, of the interiors of terrestrial planets and satellites today: we cannot visit a metallic core any other way.

“For all of these reasons, coupled with the relative accessibility to low- cost rendezvous and orbit, Psyche is a superb target for a Discovery-class mission that would characterize its geology, shape, elemental composition, magnetic field , and mass distribution.”

The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss
The huge metal asteroid Psyche may have a strong remnant magnetic field. Credit: Damir Gamulin/Ben Weiss

A robotic mission to Pysche would also help astronomers learn more about metal worlds, a type of solar system object that scientists know very little about. But perhaps the greatest reason to study 16 Psyche is the fact that it is unique. So far, this body is the only metallic core-like body that has been discovered in the Solar System.

The proposed spacecraft would orbit Psyche for six months, studying its topography, surface features, gravity, magnetism, and other characteristics. The mission would also be cost-effective and quick to launch, since it is largely based on technology that went into the making of NASA’s Dawn probe. Currently in orbit around Ceres, the Dawn mission has demonstrated the effectiveness of many new technologies, not the least of which was the xenon ion thruster.

The Psyche orbiter mission was selected as one of the Discovery Program’s five semifinalists on September 30th, 2015. Each proposal has received $3 million for year-long studies to lay out detailed mission plans and reduce risks. One or two finalist will be selected to receive the program’s budget of $450 million (minus the cost of a launch vehicle and mission operations) and will launch in 2020 at the earliest.

The Next Generation of Exploration: Back to Venus with VERITAS

In February of 2014, NASA’s Discovery Program asked for proposals for the their 13th mission. Last week, five semifinalist were selected from the original 27 submissions for further investigation and refinement. Of the possible missions that could be going up, two involve sending a robotic spacecraft to a planet that NASA has not been to in decades: Venus!

The first is the DAVINCI spacecraft, which would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere. Meanwhile, the proposed VERITAS mission – or The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy spacecraft – would investigate the planet’s surface to determine just how much it has in common with Earth, and whether or not it was ever habitable.

In many respects, this mission would pick up where Magellan left off in the early 1990s. Having reached Venus in 1990, the Magellan spacecraft (otherwise known as the Venus Radar Mapper) mapped nearly the entire surface with an S-band Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and microwave radiometer. From the data obtained, NASA scientists were able to make radar altimeter measurements of the planet’s topography.

Deployment of Magellan with Inertial Upper Stage booster. Credit: NASA
Deployment of the Magellan spacecraft with the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS) booster during the STS 30 Atlantis flight. Credit: NASA

These measurements revolutionized our understanding of Venus’ geology and the geophysical processes that have shaped the planet’s surface. In addition to revealing a young surface with few impact craters, Magellan also showed evidence of volcanic activity and signs of plate tectonics.

However, the lack of finer resolution imagery and topography of the surface hampered efforts to answer definitively what role these forces have played in the formation and evolution of the surface. As a result, scientists have remained unclear as to what extent certain forces have shaped (and continue to shape) the surface of Venus.

With a suite of modern instruments, the VERITAS spacecraft would produce global, high-resolution topography and imaging of Venus’ surface and produce the first maps of deformation and global surface composition. These include an X-band radar configured as a single pass radar interferometer (known as VISAR) which would be coupled with a multispectral NIR emissivity mapping capability.

 Three-dimensional simulation of Gula Mons captured by the Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) combined with radar altimetry. Credit: NASA/JPL
Three-dimensional simulation of Gula Mons captured by the Magellan Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) combined with radar altimetry. Credit: NASA/JPL

Using these, the VERITAS probe will be able to see through Venus’ thick clouds, map the surface at higher resolution than Magellan, and attempt to accomplish three major scientific goals: get a better understanding of Venus’ geologic evolution; determine what geologic processes are currently operating on Venus (including whether or not active volcanoes still exist); and find evidence for past or present water.

Suzanne Smrekar of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is the mission’s principal investigator, while the JPL would be responsible for  managing the project. As she explained to Universe Today via email:

“VERITAS’ objectives are to reveal Venus’ geologic history, determine how active it is, and search for the fingerprints of past and present water. The overarching question is ‘How Earthlike is  Venus?’ As more and more exoplanets are discovered, this information is  essential to predicting whether Earth-sized planets are more likely to resemble Earth or Venus.”

Venus, image taken by Magellan using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Credit: NASA/JPL
Venus, as imaged by the Magellan spacecraft using Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). Credit: NASA/JPL

In many ways, VERITAS and DAVINCI represent a vindication for Venus scientists in the United States, who have not sent a probe to the planet since the Magellan orbiter mission ended in 1994. Since that time, efforts have been largely focused on Mars, where orbiters and landers have been looking for evidence of past and present water, and trying to piece together what Mars’ atmosphere used to look like.

But with Discovery Mission 13 and its five semi-finalists, the focus has now shifted onto Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. As John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, explained:

“The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes. Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

Each investigation team will receive $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. After a detailed review and evaluation of the concept studies, NASA will make the final selections by September 2016 for continued development. This final mission (or missions) that are selected will launcd by 2020 at the earliest.

The Next Generation of Exploration: The DAVINCI Spacecraft

It’s no secret that there has been a resurgence in interest in space exploration in recent years. Much of the credit for this goes to NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts on Mars, which in the past few years have revealed things like organic molecules on the surface, evidence of flowing water, and that the planet once had a denser atmosphere –  all of which indicate that the planet may have once been hospitable to life.

But when it comes to the future, NASA is looking beyond Mars to consider missions that will send missions to Venus, near-Earth objects, and a variety of asteroids. With an eye to Venus, they are busy investigating the possibility of sending the Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI) spacecraft to the planet by the 2020s.

Led by Lori Glaze of the Goddard Spaceflight Center, the DAVINCI descent craft would essentially pick up where the American and Soviet space programs left off with the Pioneer and Venera Programs in the 1970s and 80s. The last time either country sent a probe into Venus’ atmosphere was in 1985, when the Soviet probes Vega 1 and 2 both orbited the planet and released a balloon-supported aerobot into the upper atmosphere.

Model of the Vega 1 solar system probe bus and landing apparatus (model) - Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia, USA. Credit: historicspacecraft.com
Model of the Vega 1 probe and landing apparatus at the Udvar-Hazy Center, Dulles International Airport, Chantilly, Virginia. Credit: historicspacecraft.com

These probes both remained operational for 46 hours and discovered just how turbulent and powerful Venus’ atmosphere was. In contrast, the DAVINCI probe’s mission will be to study both the atmosphere and surface of Venus, and hopefully shed some light on some of the planet’s newfound mysteries. According to the NASA release:

“DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus’ atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether there are volcanoes active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.”

These studies will attempt to build upon the data obtained by the Venus Express spacecraft, which in 2008/2009 noted the presence of several infrared hot spots in the Ganis Chasma region near the the shield volcano of Maat Mons (shown below). Believed to be due to volcanic eruptions, this activity was thought to be responsible for significant changes that were noted in the sulfur dioxide (SO²) content in the atmosphere at the time.

What’s more, the Pioneer Venus spacecraft – which studied the planet’s atmosphere from 1978 until its orbit decayed in 1992 – noted a tenfold decreased in the density of SO² at the cloud tops, which was interpreted as a decline following an episode of volcanogenic upwelling from the lower atmosphere.

3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission.
3-D perspective of the Venusian volcano, Maat Mons, generated from radar data from NASA’s Magellan mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

Commonly associated with volcanic activity here on Earth, SO² is a million times more abundant in Venus’ atmosphere, where it helps to power the runaway greenhouse effect that makes the planet so inhospitable. However, any SO² released into Venus’ atmosphere is also short-lived, being broken down by sunlight within a matter of days.

Hence, any significant changes in SO² levels in the upper atmosphere must have been a recent addition, and some scientists believe that the spike observed in 2008/2009 was due to a large volcano (or several) erupting. Determining whether or not this is the case, and whether or not volcanic activity plays an active role in the composition of Venus’s thick atmosphere, will be central to DAVINCI’s mission.

Along with four other mission concepts, DAVINCI was selected as a semifinalist for the NASA Discovery Program‘s latest calls for proposed missions. Every few years, the Discovery Program – a low-cost planetary missions program that is managed by the JPL’s Planetary Science Division – puts out a call for missions with an established budget of around $500 million (not counting the cost of launch or operation).

The latest call for submissions took place in February 2014, as part of the Discovery Mission 13. At the time, a total of 27 teams threw their hats into the ring to become part of the next round of space exploration missions. Last Wednesday, September 30th, 2015, five semifinalists were announced, one (or possibly two) of which will be chosen as the winner(s) by September 2016.

Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander. InSight is based on the proven Phoenix Mars spacecraft and lander design with state-of-the-art avionics from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) missions. Credit: JPL/NASA
Artist rendition of NASA’s Mars InSight (Interior exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) Lander, which was selected as part of the Discovery Programs 2010 call for submissions and will be launched by 2016. Credit: JPL/NASA

These finalists will receive $3 million in federal grants for detailed concept studies, and the mission (or missions) that are ultimately chosen will be launched by December 31st, 2021. The Discovery Program began back in 1992, and launched its first mission- the Mars Pathfinder – in 1996. Other Discovery missions include the NEAR Shoemaker probe that first orbited an asteroid, and the Stardust-NExT project, which returned samples of comet and interstellar dust to Earth.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, the planet-hunting Kepler telescope, and the Dawn spacecraft were also developed and launched under the Discovery program. The winning proposal of the Discovery Program’s 12th mission, which was issued back in 2010, was the InSight Mars lander. Set to launch in March of 2016, the lander will touch down on the red planet, deploy instruments to the planet’s interior, and measure its seismic activity.

NASA hopes to infuse the next mission with new technologies, offering up government-furnished equipment with incentives to sweeten the deal for  each proposal. These include a supply of deep space optical communications system that are intended to test new high-speed data links with Earth. Science teams that choose to incorporate the laser telecom unit will be entitled to an extra $30 million above their $450 million cost cap.

If science teams wish to send entry probes into the atmospheres of Venus or Saturn, they will need a new type of heat shield. Hence, NASA’s solicitation includes a provision to furnish a newly-developed 3D-woven heat shield with a $10 million incentive. A deep space atomic clock is also available with a $5 million bonus, and NASA has offered to provide xenon ion thrusters and radioisotope heater units without incentives.

As with previous Discovery missions, NASA has stipulated that the mission must use solar power, limiting mission possibilities beyond Jupiter and Saturn. Other technologies may include the NEXT ion thruster and/or re-entry technology.

Saturn’s Moon Titan

Titan's dense, hydrocarbon rich atmosphere remains a focal point of scientific research. Credit: NASA

In ancient Greek lore, the Titans were giant deities of incredible strength who ruled during the legendary Golden Age and gave birth to the Olympian gods we all know and love. Saturn‘s largest moon, known as Titan, is therefore appropriately named. In addition to being Saturn’s largest moon – and the second-largest moon in the Solar System (after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede) – it is larger by volume than even the smallest planet, Mercury.

Beyond its size, Titan is also fascinating because it is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere, a fact which has made it very difficult to study until recently. On top of all that, it is the only object other than Earth where clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found. All of this makes Titan the focal point of a great deal of curiosity, and a prime location for future scientific missions.

Discovery and Naming:

Titan was discovered on March 25th, 1655, by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. Huygens had been inspired by Galileo’s improvements in telescopes and his discovery of moons circling Jupiter in 1610. By 1650, he went about developing a telescope of his own with the help of his brother (Constantijn Huygens, Jr.) and observed the first moon of Saturn.

In 1655, Huygens named it Saturni Luna (Latin for “Saturn’s moon”) in a tract De Saturni Luna Observatio Nova (“A New Observation of Saturn’s Moon”). As Giovanni Domenico Cassini discoveries four more moons around Saturn between 1673 and 1686, astronomers began to refer to them as Saturn I through V (with Titan being in the fourth position as Saturn IV).

A replica of the telescope which William Herschel used to observe Uranus. Credit:
A replica of the telescope which William Herschel used to observe Uranus. Credit: Alun Salt/Wikimedia Commons

After William Herschel’s discovery of Mimas and Enceladus in 1789, which are closer to Saturn than any of the larger moons, Saturn’s moons once again had to be re-designated. Thenceforth, Titan status became fixed as Saturn VI, despite the discovery of several smaller moons that were closer to Saturn since then.

The name Titan, along with the names for all the seven major satellites of Saturn, were suggested by William Herschel’s son, John. In 1847, John Herschel published Results of Astronomical Observations Made at the Cape of Good Hope, in which he suggested that the moons be named after the mythological Titans – the brothers and sisters of Cronus, who is the Greek equivalent to Saturn.

In 1907, Spanish astronomer Josep Comas i Solà observed limb darkening of Titan. This effect, where the center part of a planet or star appears brighter than the edge (or limb), was the first indication that Titan had an atmosphere. In 1944, Gerard P. Kuiper used a spectroscopic technique to determine that Titan had an atmosphere composed of methane.

Size. Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 2576 ± 2 km and a mass of 1.345 × 1023 kg, Titan is 0.404 the size of Earth (or 1.480 Moons) and 0.0225 times as massive (1.829 Moons). Its orbit has a minor eccentricity of 0.0288, and its orbital plane is inclined 0.348 degrees relative to Saturn’s equator. It’s average distance from Saturn (semi-major axis) is 1,221,870 km – ranging from 1,186,680 km at periapsis (closest) to 1,257,060 km at apoapsis (farthest).

Diameter comparison of Titan, Moon, and Earth. Credit: NASA/GJPL/regory H. Revera
Diameter comparison of Titan, the Moon, and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gregory H. Revera

Titan takes 15 days and 22 hours to complete a single orbit of Saturn. Like the Moon and many satellites that orbit the other gas giants, its rotational period is identical to its orbital period. Thus, Titan is tidally-locked and in a synchronous rotation with Saturn, which means one face is permanently pointed towards the planet.

Composition and Surface Features:

Though similar in composition to Dione and Enceladus, Titan is denser due to gravitational compression. In terms of diameter and mass (and hence density) Titan is more similar to the Jovian moons of Ganymede and Callisto. Based on its bulk density of 1.88 g/cm3, Titan’s composition is believed to consist half of water ice and half of rocky material.

It’s internal makeup is likely differentiated into several layers, with a 3,400-kilometre (2,100 mi) rocky center surrounded by layers composed of different forms of crystalized ice. Based on evidence provided by the Cassini-Huygens mission in 2005, it is believed that Titan may also have a subsurface ocean which exists between the crust and several deeper layers of high-pressure ice.

This subsurface ocean is believed to be made up of water and ammonia, which allows the water to remain in a liquid state even at temperatures as low as 176 K (-97 °C). Evidence of a systematic shift of the moon’s surface features (which took place between October 2005 and May 2007) suggests that the crust is decoupled from the interior – possibly by a liquid layer in between – as well as the way the gravity field varies as Titan orbits Saturn.

iagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong
Diagram of the internal structure of Titan according to the fully differentiated dense-ocean model. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kelvinsong

The surface of Titan is relatively young – between 100 million and 1 billion years old – despite having been formed during the early Solar System. In addition, it appears to be relatively smooth, with impact craters having been filled in. Height variation is also low, ranging by little more than 150 meters, but with the occasional mountain reaching between 500 meters and 1 km in height.

This is believed to due to geological processes which have reshaped Titan’s surface over time. For example, a range measuring 150 km (93 mi) long, 30 km (19 mi) wide, and 1.5 km (0.93 mi) tall has been potted in the southern hemisphere, composed of icy material and covered in methane snow. The movement of tectonic plates, perhaps influenced by a nearby impact basin, could have opened a gap through which the mountain’s material upwelled.

Then there is Sotra Patera, a chain of mountains that is 1000 to 1500 m (0.62 and 0.93 mi) in height, has some peaks topped by craters, and what appears to be frozen lava flows at its base. If volcanism on Titan really exists, the hypothesis is that it is driven by energy released from the decay of radioactive elements within the mantle, tidal flexing caused by Saturn’s influence, or possibly the interaction of Titan’s subsurface ice layers.

An alternate theory is that Titan is a geologically dead world and that the surface is shaped by a combination of impact cratering, flowing-liquid and wind-driven erosion, mass wasting and other externally-motivated processes. According to this hypothesis, methane is not emitted by volcanoes but slowly diffuses out of Titan’s cold and stiff interior.

Updated maps of Titan, based on the Cassini imaging science subsystem. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Updated maps of Titan, based on the Cassini imaging science subsystem. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The few impact craters discovered on Titan’s surface include a 440 km (270 mi) wide two-ring impact basin named Menrva, which is identifiable from its bright-dark concentric pattern. A smaller, 60 km (37 mi) wide, flat-floored crater named Sinlap and a 30 km (19 mi) crater with a central peak and dark floor named Ksa have also been observed.

Radar and orbital imaging has also revealed a number of “crateriforms” on the surface, circular features that may be impact related. These include a 90 km (56 mi) wide ring of bright, rough material known as Guabonito, which is thought to be an impact crater filled in by dark, windblown sediment. Several other similar features have been observed in the dark Shangri-la and Aaru regions.

The presence of cryovolcanism has also been theorized based on the fact that there is apparently not enough liquid methane on Titan’s surface (see below) to account for the atmospheric methane. However, to date, the only indications of cryovolcanism are particularly bright and dark features on the surface and 200 m (660 ft)  structures resembling lava flows that were spotted in the region called Hotei Arcus.

Titan’s surface is also permeated by streaky features (aka. “sand dunes“), some of which are hundreds of kilometers in length and several meters high. These appear to be caused by powerful, alternating winds that are caused by the interaction of the Sun and Titan’s dense atmosphere. Titan’s surface is also marked by broad regions of bright and dark terrain.

Radar image of rows of dunes on Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Radar image of rows of dunes on Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These include Xanadu, a large, reflective equatorial area that was first identified by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994 and later by the Cassini spacecraft. This region (which is about the same size as Australia) is very diverse, being filled with hills, valleys, chasms and crisscrossed in places by dark lineaments – sinuous topographical features resembling ridges or crevices.

These could be an indication of tectonic activity, which would mean that Xanadu is geologically young. Alternatively, the lineaments may be liquid-formed channels, suggesting old terrain that has been cut through by stream systems. There are dark areas of similar size elsewhere on Titan, which have been revealed to be the patches of water ice and organic compounds that darkened due to exposure to UV radiation.

Methane Lakes:

Titan is also home to its famous “hydrocarbon seas”, lakes of liquid methane and other hydrocarbon compounds. Many of these have been spotted near the polar regions, such as Ontario Lacus. This confirmed methane lake near the south pole has a surface area of 15,000 km² (making it 20% smaller than its namesake, Lake Ontario) and a maximum depth of 7 meters (23 feet).

But the largest body of liquid is Kraken Mare, a methane lake near the north pole. With a surface area of about 400,000 km², it is larger than the Caspian Sea and is estimated to be 160 meters deep. Shallow capillary waves (aka. ripple waves) that are 1.5 centimeters high and moving at speeds of 0.7 meters per second have also been detected.

The seas of Titan
Mosaic of images taken in near infrared light showing Titan’s polar seas (left) and a radar image of Kraken Mare (right), both taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

Then there is Ligeia Mare, the second largest known body of liquid on Titan, which is connected to Kraken Mare and also located near the north pole. With a surface area of about 126,000 km² and a shoreline that is over 2000 km (1240 mi) in length, it is larger than Lake Superior. Much like Kraken Mare, it takes its name from Greek mythology; in this case, after one of the sirens.

It was here that NASA first noticed a bright object measuring 260 km² (100 square miles), which they named “Magic Island”. This object was first spotted in July 2013, then disappeared later, only to reappear again (slightly changed) in August 2014 . It is believed to be inked to Titan’s changing seasons, and suggestions as to what it might be range from surface waves and rising bubbles to floating solids suspended beneath the surface.

Although most of the lakes are concentrated near the poles (where low levels of sunlight prevent evaporation), a number of hydrocarbon lakes have also been discovered in the equatorial desert regions. This includes one near the Huygens landing site in the Shangri-la region, which is about half the size of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Like desert oases on Earth, it is speculated that these equatorial lakes are fed by underground aquifers.

Overall, the Cassini radar observations have shown that lakes cover only a few percent of the surface, making Titan much drier than Earth. However, the probe also provided strong indications that considerable liquid water exists 100 km below the surface. Further analysis of the data suggests that this ocean may be as salty as the Dead Sea.

 During previous flybys, 'Magic Island' was not visible near Ligeia Mare's coastline (left). Then, during Cassini's July 20, 2013, flyby the feature appeared (right) NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell
During previous flybys, ‘Magic Island’ was not visible near Ligeia Mare’s coastline (left). Then, during Cassini’s July 20, 2013, flyby the feature appeared (right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Other studies suggest methane rainfall (see below) on Titan may interact with icy materials underground to produce ethane and propane that may eventually feed into rivers and lakes.


Titan is the only moon in the Solar System with a significant atmosphere, and the only body other than Earth who’s atmosphere is nitrogen-rich. Recent observations have shown that Titan’s atmosphere is denser than Earth’s, with a surface pressure of about 1.469 KPa – 1.45 times that of Earths. It is also about 1.19 times as massive as Earth’s atmosphere overall, or about 7.3 times more massive on a per-surface-area basis.

The atmosphere is made up of opaque haze layers and other sources that block most visible light from the Sun and obscure its surface features (similar to Venus). Titan’s lower gravity also means that its atmosphere is far more extended than Earth’s. In the stratosphere, the atmospheric composition is 98.4% nitrogen with the remaining 1.6% composed mostly of methane (1.4%) and hydrogen (0.1–0.2%).

There are trace amounts of other hydrocarbons, such as ethane, diacetylene, methylacetylene, acetylene and propane; as well as other gases such as cyanoacetylene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, cyanogen, argon and helium. The hydrocarbons are thought to form in Titan’s upper atmosphere in reactions resulting from the breakup of methane by the Sun’s ultraviolet light, producing a thick orange smog.

Energy from the Sun should have converted all traces of methane in Titan’s atmosphere into more complex hydrocarbons within 50 million years—a short time compared to the age of the Solar System. This suggests that methane must be replenished by a reservoir on or within Titan itself. The ultimate origin of the methane in its atmosphere may be its interior, released via eruptions from cryovolcanoes.

False colour image of Titan's atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/ESA
False color image of Titan’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/ESA

Titan’s surface temperature is about 94 K (-179.2 °C), which is due to the fact that Titan receives about 1% as much sunlight as Earth. At this temperature, water ice has an extremely low vapor pressure, so the little water vapor present appears limited to the stratosphere. The moon would be much colder, were it not for the fact that the atmospheric methane creates a greenhouse effect on Titan’s surface.

Conversely, haze in Titan’s atmosphere contributes to an anti-greenhouse effect by reflecting sunlight back into space, cancelling a portion of the greenhouse effect and making its surface significantly colder than its upper atmosphere. In addition, Titan’s atmosphere periodically rains liquid methane and other organic compounds onto its surface.

Based on studies simulating the atmosphere of Titan, NASA scientists have speculated that complex organic molecules could arise on Titan (see below). In addition, propene – aka. propylene, a class of hydrocarbon – has also been detected in Titan’s atmosphere. This is the first time propene has been found on any moon or planet other than Earth, and is thought to be formed from recombined radicals created by the UV photolysis of methane.


Titan is thought to be a prebiotic environment rich in complex organic chemistry with a possible subsurface liquid ocean serving as a biotic environment. Ongoing research of Titan’s atmosphere has led many scientists to theorize that conditions there are similar to what existed on a primordial Earth, with the important exception of a lack of water vapor.

Numerous experiments have shown that an atmosphere similar to that of Titan, with the addition of UV radiation, could give rise to complex molecules and polymer substances like tholins. In addition, independent research conducted by the University of Arizona reported that when energy was applied to a combination of gases like those found in Titan’s atmosphere, many organic compounds were produced. These includes the five nucleotide bases – the building blocks of DNA and RNA – as well as amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein.

Multiple laboratory simulations have been conducted that have led to the suggestion that enough organic material exists on Titan to start a chemical evolution process analogous to what is thought to have started life here on Earth. While this theory assumes the presence of water that would remain in a liquid state for longer periods that have been observed, organic life could theoretically survive in Titan’s hypothetical subsurface ocean.

Much like on Europa and other moons, this life would likely take the form of extremophiles – organisms that thrive in extreme environments. Heat transfer between the interior and upper layers would be critical in sustaining any subsurface oceanic life, most likely through hydrothermal vents located at the ocean-core boundary. That the atmospheric methane and nitrogen might be of biological origin has also been examined.

It has also been suggested that life could exist in Titan’s lakes of liquid methane, just as organisms on Earth live in water. Such organisms would inhale dihydrogen (H²) in place of oxygen gas (O²), metabolize it with acetylene instead of glucose, and then exhale methane instead of carbon dioxide. Although all living things on Earth use liquid water as a solvent, it is speculated that life on Titan could actually live in liquid hydrocarbons.

Several experiments and models have been constructed to test this hypothesis. For instance, atmospheric models have shown that molecular hydrogen is in greater abundance in the upper atmosphere and disappears near the surface – which is consistent with the possibility of methanogenic life-forms. Another study has shown that there are low levels of acetylene on Titan’s surface, which is also in line with the hypothesis of organisms consuming hydrocarbons.

In 2015, a team of chemical engineers at Cornell University went as far as to construct a hypothetical cell membrane that was capable of functioning in liquid methane under conditions similar to that on Titan. Composed of small molecules containing carbon, hydrogen, and nitrogen, this cell was said to have the same stability and flexibility as cell membranes on Earth. This hypothetical cell membrane was termed an “azotosome” (a combination of “azote”, French for nitrogen, and “liposome”).

However, NASA has gone on record as stating that these theories remain entirely hypothetical. Furthermore, it has been emphasized that other theories as to why hydrogen and acetylene levels are lower nearer to the surface are more plausible. These include a as-of-yet unidentified physical or chemical processes – such as a surface catalyst accepting hydrocarbons or hydrogen – or the existence of flaws in the current models of material flow.

Also, life on Titan would face tremendous obstacles compared to life on Earth – thus making any analogy to Earth problematic. For one, Titan is too far from the Sun, and its atmosphere lacks carbon monoxide (CO), which results in it not retaining enough heat or energy to trigger biological processes. Also, water only exists on Titan’s surface in solid form.

So while the prebiotic conditions that are associated with organic chemistry exist on Titan, life itself may not. However, the existence of these conditions remains a subject of fascination among scientists. And since its atmosphere is thought to be analogous to Earth’s in the distant past, researching Titan could help advance our understanding of the early history of the terrestrial biosphere.


Titan cannot be spotted without the help of instrumentation, and is often difficult for amateur astronomers because of interference from Saturn’s brilliant globe and ring system. And even after the development of high-powered telescopes, Titan’s dense, hazy, atmosphere made observations of the surface very difficult. Hence, observations of both Titan and its surface features prior to the space age were limited.

The first probe to visit the Saturnian system was Pioneer 11 in 1979, which took images of Titan and Saturn together and revealed that Titan was probably too cold to support life. Titan was examined in 1980 and 1981 by both the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes, respectively. While Voyager 2 managed to take snapshots of Titan on its way to Uranus and Neptune, only Voyager 1 managed to conduct a flyby and take pictures and readings.

This included readings on Titan’s density, composition, and temperature of the atmosphere, and obtain a precise measurement of Titan’s mass. Atmospheric haze prevented direct imaging of the surface; though in 2004, intensive digital processing of images taken through Voyager 1‘s orange filter did reveal hints of the light and dark features now known as Xanadu and Shangri-la.

 Voyager 2 photograph of Titan, taken Aug. 23, 1981 from a range of 2.3 million kilometers (1.4 million miles), shows some detail in the cloud systems on this Saturnian moon. Credit: NASA/JPL
Voyager 2 photograph of Titan, taken on Aug. 23rd, 1981, which shows some detail in the cloud systems on this Saturnian moon. Credit: NASA/JPL

Even so, much of the mystery surrounding Titan would not begin to be dispelled until the Cassini-Huygens mission – a joint project between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) named in honor of the astronomers who made the greatest discoveries involving Saturn’s moons. The spacecraft reached Saturn on July 1st, 2004, and began the process of mapping Titan’s surface by radar.

The Cassini probe flew by Titan on October 26th, 2004, and took the highest-resolution images ever of Titan’s surface, discerning patches of light and dark that were otherwise invisible to the human eye. Over the course of many close flybys of Titan, Cassini managed to detect abundant sources of liquid on the surface in the north polar region, in the form of many lakes and seas.

The Huygens probe landed on Titan on January 14th, 2005, making Titan the most distant body from Earth to have a space probe land on its surface. During the course of its investigations, it would discover that many of the surface features appear to have been formed by fluids at some point in the past.

After landing just off the easternmost tip of the bright region now called Adiri, the probe photographed pale hills with dark “rivers” running down to a dark plain. The current theory is that these hills (aka. “highlands”) are composed mainly of water ice, and that dark organic compounds – created in the upper atmosphere – may come down from Titan’s atmosphere with methane rain and become deposited on the plains over time.

Artist depiction of Huygens landing on Titan. Credit: ESA
Artist depiction of Huygens landing on Titan. Credit: ESA

Huygens also obtained photographs of a dark plain covered in small rocks and pebbles (composed of water ice) that showed evidence of erosion and/or fluvial activity. The surface is darker than originally expected, consisting of a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice. The “soil” visible in the images is interpreted to be precipitation from the hydrocarbon haze above.

Several proposals for returning a robotic space probe to Titan have been made in recent years. These include the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) – a joint NASA/ESA proposal for the exploration of Saturn’s moons – that envisions a hot-air balloon floating in Titan’s atmosphere and conducting research for a period of six months.

In 2009, it was announced that the TSSM lost out to a competing concept known the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) – a joint NASA/ESA mission that will consist of sending two probes to Europa and Ganymede to study their potential habitability.

There was also a proposal known as Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), a concept under consideration by NASA in conjunction with Lockheed Martin. This mission would involve a low-cost lander splashing down in a lake in Titan’s northern hemisphere and floating on the surface of the lake for 3 to 6 months. However, NASA announced in 2012 that it favored the lower-cost InSight Mars lander instead, which is scheduled to be sent to Mars in 2016.

Another mission to Titan was proposed in early 2012 by Jason Barnes, a scientist at the University of Idaho. Known as the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR), this unmanned plane (or drone) would fly through Titan’s atmosphere and take high-definition images of the surface. NASA did not approve the requested $715 million at the time and the future of the project is uncertain.

Another lake lander project known as the Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer (TALISE) was proposed in late 2012 by the Spanish-based private engineering firm SENER and the Centro de Astrobiología in Madrid. The major difference between this and the TiME probe is that the TALISE concept includes its own propulsion system, and would therefore not be limited to simply drifting on the lake when it splashes down.

In response to NASA’s 2010 Discovery Announcement, the concept known as Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET) was proposed. Developed by Caltech and JPL, this mission would consist of a low-cost astrobiology orbiter that would be sent to the Saturnian system to asses the habitability potential of Enceladus and Titan.

In 2015, NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) awarded a Phase II grant to a proposed robotic submarine in order to further investigate and develop the concept. This submarine explorer, should it be deployed to Titan, will explore the depths of Kraken Mare to investigate its makeup and potential for supporting life.


The colonization of the Saturn system presents numerous advantages compared to other gas giants in the Solar System. According to Dr. Robert Zubrin – an American aerospace engineer, author, and an advocate for the exploration Mars – these include its relative proximity to Earth, its low radiation, and its excellent system of moons. Zubrin has also stated that Titan is the most important of these moons when it comes to building a base to develop the system’s resources.

On the left is TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer), the ESA proposal. This would have it's own propulsion, in the form of paddlewheels. Credit: bisbos.com
Artist’s conception of possible Titan “floater” designed by NASA and the ESA. Credit: bisbos.com

For starters, Titan possess an abundance of all the elements necessary to support life, such as atmospheric nitrogen and methane, liquid methane, and liquid water and ammonia. Water could easily be used to generate breathable oxygen, and nitrogen is ideal as a buffer gas to create a pressurized, breathable atmosphere. In addition, nitrogen, methane and ammonia could all be used to produce fertilizer for growing food.

Additionally, Titan has an atmospheric pressure one and a half times that of Earth, which means that the interior air pressure of landing craft and habitats could be set equal or close to the exterior pressure. This would significantly reduce the difficulty and complexity of structural engineering for landing craft and habitats compared with low or zero pressure environments such as on the Moon, Mars, or the Asteroid Belt.

The thick atmosphere also makes radiation a non-issue, unlike with other planets or Jupiter’s moons. And while Titan’s atmosphere does contain flammable compounds, these only present a danger if they are mixed with sufficient enough oxygen – otherwise, combustion cannot be achieved or sustained. Finally, the very high ratio of atmospheric density to surface gravity also greatly reduces the wingspan needed for aircraft to maintain lift.

Beyond this, Titan presents many challenges for human colonization. For starters, the moon has a surface gravity of 0.138 g, which is slightly less than that of the Moon. Managing the long-term effects of this presents a challenge, and what those effects would be (especially for children born on Titan) are not currently known. However, they would likely include loss of bone density, muscle deterioration, and a weakened immune system.

Artist's impression of future colonists flying over Ligeia Mare on Titan. Credit: Erik Wernquist/erikwernquist.com
Artist’s impression of future colonists flying over Ligeia Mare on Titan. Credit: Erik Wernquist/erikwernquist.com

The temperature on Titan is also considerably lower than on Earth, with an average temperature of 94 K (-179 °C, or -290.2 °F). Combined with the increased atmospheric pressure, temperatures vary very little over time and from one local to the next. Unlike in a vacuum, the high atmospheric density makes thermoinsulation a significant engineering problem. Nevetherless, compared to other cases for colonization, the problems associated with creating a human presence on Titan are relatively surmountable.

Titan is a moon that is shrouded in mystery, both literally and metaphorically. Until very recently, we were unable to discern what secrets it held because its atmosphere was simply too thick to see beneath. However, in recent years, we have managed to pull back that shroud and get a better look at the moon’s surface. But in many ways, doing this has only confounded the sense of mystery surrounding this world.

Perhaps someday we will send astronauts to Titan and find life forms there that completely alter our conception of what life is and where it can thrive. Perhaps we will find only extremophiles, life forms that live in the deepest parts of its interior ocean huddled around hydorthermal vents, since these spots are the only place on Titan where lifeforms can exist.

Perhaps we will even colonize Titan someday, and use it as a base for further exploration of the Solar System and resource extraction. Then, we may come to know the pleasures of looking up at a ringed planet in the sky while sailing on a methane lake, the hazy light of the Sun trickling down onto the cold, hydrocarbon seas. One can only hope… and dream!

We have many interesting articles about Titan here at Universe Today. Here are some on Titan’s atmosphere, it’s mysterious sand dunes, and how we might explore it with a robotic sailboat.

For more information on Titan’s methane lakes, check out this article on Titan’s north pole, and this one about Kraken Mare.

Here’s NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn and Titan, and here’s the ESA’s version.

We have recorded two episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. The first is Episode 59: Saturn, and the second is Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.

Jupiter’s Moon Europa


Jupiter‘s four largest moons – aka. the Galilean Moons, consisting of Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – are nothing if not fascinating. Ever since their discovery over four centuries ago, these moons have been a source of many great discoveries. These include the possibility of internal oceans, the presence of atmospheres, volcanic activity, one has a magnetosphere (Ganymede), and possibly having more water than even Earth.

But arguably, the most fascinating of the Galilean Moons is Europa: the sixth closest moon to Jupiter, the smallest of the four, and the sixth largest moon in the Solar System. In addition to having an icy surface and a possible warm-water interior, this moon is considered to be one of the most-likely candidates for possessing life outside of Earth.

Continue reading “Jupiter’s Moon Europa”

The Sun

This image from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) image shows large magnetically active regions and a pair of curving erupting prominences on June 28, 2000 during the current solar cycle 23 maximum. Prominences are huge clouds of relatively cool dense plasma suspended in the Sun's hot, thin corona. Magnetically active regions cause the principal total solar irradiance variations during each solar cycle. The hottest areas appear almost white, while the darker red areas indicate cooler temperatures. Credit: NASA & European Space Agency (ESA)

The Sun is the center of the Solar System and the source of all life and energy here on Earth. It accounts for more than 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System and it’s gravity dominates all the planets and objects that orbit it. Since the beginning of history, human beings have understood the Sun’s importance to our world, it’s seasons, the diurnal cycle, and the life-cycle of plants.

Because of this, the Sun has been at the center of many ancient culture’s mythologies and systems of worship. From the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas to the ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Druids, the Sun was a central deity because it was seen as the bringer of all light and life. In time, our understanding of the Sun has changed and become increasingly empirical. But that has done nothing to diminish it’s significance.

Continue reading “The Sun”