How Habitable is Titan? NASA is Sending the Titan Dragonfly Helicopter to Find Out

There are few places in the Solar System which are as fascinating as Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s a world with a thicker atmosphere than Earth. Where it’s so cold that it rains ammonia, forming lakes, rivers and seas. Where water ice forms mountains. 

Like Europa and Encleadus, Titan could have an interior ocean of liquid water too, a place where there might be life.

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Lakes on Titan Might Have Exotic Crystals Encrusted Around Their Shores

This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon's thick, hazy atmosphere. Image: By NASA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14602, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44822294

Titan is a mysterious, strange place for human eyes. It’s a frigid world, with seas of liquid hydrocarbons, and a structure made up of layers of water, different kinds of ice, and a core of hydrous silicates. It may even have cryovolcanoes. Adding to the odd nature of Saturn’s largest moon is the presence of exotic crystals on the shores of its hydrocarbon lakes.

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Methane-Filled Lakes on Titan are “Surprisingly Deep”

A near-infrared mosaic image of Saturn's moon Titan shows the sun reflecting and glinting off of Titan's northern polar seas. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

The Cassini mission to Saturn and its moons wrapped up in 2017, when the spacecraft was sent plunging into the gas giant to meet its end. But there’s still a lot of data from the mission to keep scientists busy. A team of scientists working with Cassini data have made a surprising discovery: Titan’s methane-filled lakes are much deeper, and weirder, than expected.

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Cassini Saw Rain Falling at Titan’s North Pole

An image from the Nasa-Esa-Asi Cassini spacecraft provides evidence of rainfall on the north pole of Titan

The Cassini mission to Saturn ended in September 2017, but the data it gathered during its 13 year mission is still yielding scientific results. On the heels of a newly-released global image of Saturn’s moon Titan comes another discovery: Rainfall at Titan’s north pole.

Climate models developed by scientists during Cassini’s mission concluded that rain should fall in the north during Titan’s summer. But scientists hadn’t seen any clouds. Now, a team of scientists have published a paper centered on Cassini images that show light reflecting off a wet surface. They make the case that the reflecting light, called a Bright Ephemeral Flare (BEF) is sunlight reflecting from newly-fallen rain.

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Titan’s Thick Clouds Obscure our View, but Cassini Took these Images in Infrared, Showing the Moon’s Surface Features

A global mosaic of the surface of Titan, thanks to the infrared eyes of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Nantes/University of Arizona

Saturn’s moon Titan is a very strange place. It’s surrounded by a dense, opaque atmosphere, the only moon in the solar system with an atmosphere to speak of. It has lakes of liquid methane on its surface, maybe some cryovolcanoes, and some scientists speculate that it could support a form of life. Very weird life.

But we still don’t know a lot about it, because we haven’t really seen much of the surface. Until now.

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Titan First-Ever Detected Dust Storms Prove the Moon is More Earth-like than Ever

Ever since the Cassini orbiter entered the Saturn system in July of 2004, scientists and the general public have been treated to a steady stream of data about this ringed giant and its many fascinating moons. In particular, a great deal of attention was focused on Saturn’s largest moon Titan, which has many surprising Earth-like characteristics.

These include its nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the presence of liquid bodies on its surface, a dynamic climate, organic molecules, and active prebiotic chemistry. And in the latest revelation to come from the Cassini orbiter, it appears that Titan also experiences periodic dust storms. This puts it in a class that has so far been reserved for only Earth and Mars.

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Titan Looks Cool in Infrared

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on September 15th, 2017, when it crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, thus preventing any possible contamination of the system’s moons. Nevertheless, the wealth of data the probe collected during the thirteen years it spent orbiting Saturn (of the gas giant, its rings, and its many moons) continues to be analyzed by scientists – with amazing results!

Case in point, the Cassini team recently released a series of colorful images that show what Titan looks like in infrared. The images were constructing using 13 years of data that was accumulated by the spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. These images represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far.

Infrared images provide a unique opportunity when studying Titan, which is difficult to observe in the visible spectrum because of its dense and hazy atmosphere. This is primarily the result of small particles called aerosols in Titan’s upper atmosphere, which strongly scatter visible light. However, where the scattering and absorption of light is much weaker, this allows for infrared “windows” that make it possible to catch glimpses of Titan’s surface.

Comparison between how Titan appears in visible light (center), and in infrared. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona

It is because of this that the VIMS was so valuable, allowing scientists to provide clear images of Titan’s surface. This latest collection of images are especially unique because of the smoothness and clarity they offer. In previous infrared images captured by the Cassini spacecraft of Titan (see below), there were great variations in imaging resolution and lighting conditions, which resulted in obvious seams between different areas of the surface.

This is due to the fact that the VIMS obtained data over many different flybys with different observing geometries and atmospheric conditions. As a result, very prominent seams appear in mosaic images that are quite difficult to remove. But, through laborious and detailed analyses of the data, along with time consuming hand processing of the mosaics, Cassini’s imaging team was able to mostly remove the seams.

The process used to reduce the prominence of seams is known as the “band-ratio” technique. This process involves combining three color channels (red, green and blue), using a ratio between the brightness of Titan’s surface at two different wavelengths. The technique also emphasizes subtle spectral variations in the materials on Titan’s surface, as evidenced by the bright patches of brown, blue and purple (which may be evidence of different compositions).

The three mosaics shown here were composed with data from Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) taken during the three flybys of Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In addition to offering the clearest and most-seamless glimpse of Titan yet, these unique images also highlight the moon’s complex geography and composition. They also showcase the power of the VIMS instrument, which has paved the way for future infrared instruments that could capture images of Titan at much higher resolution and reveal features that Cassini was not able to see.

In the coming years, NASA hopes to send additional missions to Titan to explore its surface and methane lakes for signs of biosignatures. An infrared instrument, which can see through Titan’s dense atmosphere, provide high-resolution images of the surface and help determine its composition, will prove very useful in this regard!

Further Reading: NASA