Lake Shorelines on Titan are Shaped by Methane Waves

Map of Titan’s northern region of hydrocarbon ‘seas’ of methane and ethane, created from Cassini radar imaging. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS.
Map of Titan’s northern region of hydrocarbon ‘seas’ of methane and ethane, created from Cassini radar imaging. New research suggests that wind-driven waves are eroding the moon's coastlines. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS.

Distant Titan is an oddball in the Solar System. Saturn’s largest moon—and the second largest in the entire Solar System—has an atmosphere denser than Earth’s. It also has stable lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons on its surface.

New research shows that waves on these seas are eroding Titan’s coastlines.

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Titan Probably Doesn’t Have the Amino Acids Needed for Life to Emerge

Image of Titan’s surface obtained by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe from an approximate altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) during the probe’s slow descent to the surface on January 14, 2005. (Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Does Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, possess the necessary ingredients for life to exist? This is what a recent study published in Astrobiology hopes to address as a team of international researchers led by Western University investigated if Titan, with its lakes of liquid methane and ethane, could possess the necessary organic materials, such as amino acids, that could be used to produce life on the small moon. This study holds the potential to help researchers and the public better understand the geochemical and biological processes necessary for life to emerge throughout the cosmos.

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How Did Life Get Started on Earth? Atmospheric Haze Might Have Been the Key

Color-composite of Titan made from raw images acquired by Cassini on April 7, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

A recent study accepted to The Planetary Science Journal investigates how the organic hazes that existed on Earth between the planet’s initial formation and 500 million years afterwards, also known as Hadean geologic eon, could have contained the necessary building blocks for life, including nucleobases and amino acids. This study holds the potential to not only help scientists better understand the conditions on an early Earth, but also if these same conditions on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, could produce the building blocks of life, as well.

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Titan’s “Magic Islands” Could Be Floating Blobs of Organic Solids

A false-color image based on Cassini data shows Ligeia Mare on Titan. Credit: Howard Zebker / Stanford

When the Cassini spacecraft returned radar scans of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, the results were mindblowing. It revealed giant lakes or seas of liquid methane, a complete absence of waves and what seemed to be islands in the giant bodies of liquid. Now a team of scientists think they may be blobs of organic molecules that form in the atmosphere, collect in the lakes and float around!

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Should We Send Humans to Titan?

Universe Today recently examined the potential for sending humans to Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa, and the planet Venus, both despite their respective harsh surface environments. While human missions to these exceptional worlds could be possible in the future, what about farther out in the solar system to a world with much less harsh surface conditions, although still inhospitable for human life? Here, we will investigate whether Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, could be a feasible location for sending humans sometime in the future. Titan lacks the searing temperatures and crushing pressures of Venus along with the harsh radiation experienced on Europa. So, should we send humans to Titan?

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Titan Dragonfly is Go!…. for Phase C

Artist’s rendition of NASA’s Dragonfly on the surface of Titan. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben)

The surface exploration of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, just got one step closer to reality as NASA’s much-anticipated Dragonfly mission recently received approval from the powers that be to advance to Phase C, which is designated as Final Design and Fabrication, according to NASA’s Systems Engineering Handbook. This comes after the Dragonfly team successfully completed all the requirements for Phase B in March 2023, also known as the Preliminary Design Review or Preliminary Design and Technology Completion in the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook.

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Aerocapture is a Free Lunch in Space Exploration

Visualisation of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter aerobraking at Mars. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab.

This article was updated on 11/28/23

When spacecraft return to Earth, they don’t need to shed all their velocity by firing retro-rockets. Instead, they use the atmosphere as a brake to slow down for a soft landing. Every planet in the Solar System except Mercury has enough of an atmosphere to allow aerocapture maneuvers, and could allow high-speed exploration missions. A new paper looks at the different worlds and how a spacecraft must fly to take advantage of this “free lunch” to slow down at the destination.

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What if Titan Dragonfly had a Fusion Engine?

Artist's Impression of Dragonfly on Titan’s surface. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL

In a little over four years, NASA’s Dragonfly mission will launch into space and begin its long journey towards Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. As part of the New Frontiers program, this quadcopter will explore Titan’s atmosphere, surface, and methane lakes for possible indications of life (aka. biosignatures). This will commence in 2034, with a science phase lasting for three years and three and a half months. The robotic explorer will rely on a nuclear battery – a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermal Generator (MMRTG) – to ensure its longevity.

But what if Dragonfly were equipped with a next-generation fusion power system? In a recent mission study paper, a team of researchers from Princeton Satellite Systems demonstrated how a Direct Fusion Drive (DFD) could greatly enhance a mission to Titan. This New Jersey-based aerospace company is developing fusion systems that rely on the Princeton Field-Reversed Configuration (PFRC). This research could lead to compact fusion reactors that could lead to rapid transits, longer-duration missions, and miniature nuclear reactors here on Earth.

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If Titan Has the Chemistry For Life, Dragonfly Could Find it

In this illustration, the Dragonfly helicopter drone is descending to the surface of Titan. Image: NASA
In this illustration, the Dragonfly helicopter drone is descending to the surface of Titan. Image: NASA

The highly-anticipated Dragonfly robotic rotocraft mission to Saturn’s moon Titan is scheduled to launch in 2027. When it arrives in the mid-2030s, it will hover and zoom around in the thick atmosphere of Titan, sampling the air and imaging the landscape.  What could be more exciting than that!?

Well, actually … there’s more: Dragonfly will also be equipped with a mass spectrometer that will help it search for the chemistry of life in this alien world. Astrobiologists want to know if Titan has the same type of chemistry on its surface that Earth did in its early history, which could have helped give rise to life on our planet.

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A Helicopter is Going to Titan. Could an Airplane be Next?

Artist concept of the TitanAir laker. Credit: James Vaughan. (https://www.jamesvaughanphoto.com/)

What are the hydrocarbon seas on Titan really like? While the upcoming Dragonfly helicopter mission to Saturn’s hazy and frigid moon should arrive by 2034 to explore Titan’s atmosphere, the need remains for a mission that could study the moon’s mysterious seas and lakes, filled with liquid hydrocarbons.  

But, how about an aircraft that could study both the seas and skies of Titan?

A new mission concept that received funding from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program is called “TitanAir,” and features a flying boat, known as a laker. The laker would be outfitted with numerous instruments to sip and taste both air and liquid, all while soaring and sailing, seamlessly transitioning between navigating through Titan’s atmosphere and gliding across its lakes, much like a seaplane on Earth.

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