Ever since Democritus – a Greek philosopher who lived between the 5th and 4th century’s BCE – argued that all of existence was made up of tiny indivisible atoms, scientists have been speculating as to the true nature of light. Whereas scientists ventured back and forth between the notion that light was a particle or a wave until the modern, the 20th century led to breakthroughs that showed that it behaves as both.
These included the discovery of the electron, the development of quantum theory, and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. However, there remains many fascinating and unanswered questions when it comes to light, many of which arise from its dual nature. For instance, how is it that light can be apparently without mass, but still behave as a particle? And how can it behave like a wave and pass through a vacuum, when all other waves require a medium to propagate?
Theory of Light to the 19th Century:
During the Scientific Revolution, scientists began moving away from Aristotelian scientific theories that had been seen as accepted canon for centuries. This included rejecting Aristotle’s theory of light, which viewed it as being a disturbance in the air (one of his four “elements” that composed matter), and embracing the more mechanistic view that light was composed of indivisible atoms.
In many ways, this theory had been previewed by atomists of Classical Antiquity – such as Democritus and Lucretius – both of whom viewed light as a unit of matter given off by the sun. By the 17th century, several scientists emerged who accepted this view, stating that light was made up of discrete particles (or “corpuscles”). This included Pierre Gassendi, a contemporary of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Robert Boyle, and most famously, Sir Isaac Newton.
Every source of light emits large numbers of tiny particles known as corpuscles in a medium surrounding the source.
These corpuscles are perfectly elastic, rigid, and weightless.
This represented a challenge to “wave theory”, which had been advocated by 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. . These theories were first communicated in 1678 to the Paris Academy of Sciences and were published in 1690 in his “Traité de la lumière“ (“Treatise on Light“). In it, he argued a revised version of Descartes views, in which the speed of light is infinite and propagated by means of spherical waves emitted along the wave front.
By the early 19th century, scientists began to break with corpuscular theory. This was due in part to the fact that corpuscular theory failed to adequately explain the diffraction, interference and polarization of light, but was also because of various experiments that seemed to confirm the still-competing view that light behaved as a wave.
The most famous of these was arguably the Double-Slit Experiment, which was originally conducted by English polymath Thomas Young in 1801 (though Sir Isaac Newton is believed to have conducted something similar in his own time). In Young’s version of the experiment, he used a slip of paper with slits cut into it, and then pointed a light source at them to measure how light passed through it.
According to classical (i.e. Newtonian) particle theory, the results of the experiment should have corresponded to the slits, the impacts on the screen appearing in two vertical lines. Instead, the results showed that the coherent beams of light were interfering, creating a pattern of bright and dark bands on the screen. This contradicted classical particle theory, in which particles do not interfere with each other, but merely collide.
The only possible explanation for this pattern of interference was that the light beams were in fact behaving as waves. Thus, this experiment dispelled the notion that light consisted of corpuscles and played a vital part in the acceptance of the wave theory of light. However subsequent research, involving the discovery of the electron and electromagnetic radiation, would lead to scientists considering yet again that light behaved as a particle too, thus giving rise to wave-particle duality theory.
Electromagnetism and Special Relativity:
Prior to the 19th and 20th centuries, the speed of light had already been determined. The first recorded measurements were performed by Danish astronomer Ole Rømer, who demonstrated in 1676 using light measurements from Jupiter’s moon Io to show that light travels at a finite speed (rather than instantaneously).
By the late 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was an electromagnetic wave, and devised several equations (known as Maxwell’s equations) to describe how electric and magnetic fields are generated and altered by each other and by charges and currents. By conducting measurements of different types of radiation (magnetic fields, ultraviolet and infrared radiation), he was able to calculate the speed of light in a vacuum (represented as c).
In 1905, Albert Einstein published “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, in which he advanced one of his most famous theories and overturned centuries of accepted notions and orthodoxies. In his paper, he postulated that the speed of light was the same in all inertial reference frames, regardless of the motion of the light source or the position of the observer.
Exploring the consequences of this theory is what led him to propose his theory of Special Relativity, which reconciled Maxwell’s equations for electricity and magnetism with the laws of mechanics, simplified the mathematical calculations, and accorded with the directly observed speed of light and accounted for the observed aberrations. It also demonstrated that the speed of light had relevance outside the context of light and electromagnetism.
For one, it introduced the idea that major changes occur when things move close the speed of light, including the time-space frame of a moving body appearing to slow down and contract in the direction of motion when measured in the frame of the observer. After centuries of increasingly precise measurements, the speed of light was determined to be 299,792,458 m/s in 1975.
Einstein and the Photon:
In 1905, Einstein also helped to resolve a great deal of confusion surrounding the behavior of electromagnetic radiation when he proposed that electrons are emitted from atoms when they absorb energy from light. Known as the photoelectric effect, Einstein based his idea on Planck’s earlier work with “black bodies” – materials that absorb electromagnetic energy instead of reflecting it (i.e. white bodies).
At the time, Einstein’s photoelectric effect was attempt to explain the “black body problem”, in which a black body emits electromagnetic radiation due to the object’s heat. This was a persistent problem in the world of physics, arising from the discovery of the electron, which had only happened eight years previous (thanks to British physicists led by J.J. Thompson and experiments using cathode ray tubes).
At the time, scientists still believed that electromagnetic energy behaved as a wave, and were therefore hoping to be able to explain it in terms of classical physics. Einstein’s explanation represented a break with this, asserting that electromagnetic radiation behaved in ways that were consistent with a particle – a quantized form of light which he named “photons”. For this discovery, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.
Subsequent theories on the behavior of light would further refine this idea, which included French physicist Louis-Victor de Broglie calculating the wavelength at which light functioned. This was followed by Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” (which stated that measuring the position of a photon accurately would disturb measurements of it momentum and vice versa), and Schrödinger’s paradox that claimed that all particles have a “wave function”.
In accordance with quantum mechanical explanation, Schrodinger proposed that all the information about a particle (in this case, a photon) is encoded in its wave function, a complex-valued function roughly analogous to the amplitude of a wave at each point in space. At some location, the measurement of the wave function will randomly “collapse”, or rather “decohere”, to a sharply peaked function. This was illustrated in Schrödinger famous paradox involving a closed box, a cat, and a vial of poison (known as the “Schrödinger Cat” paradox).
According to his theory, wave function also evolves according to a differential equation (aka. the Schrödinger equation). For particles with mass, this equation has solutions; but for particles with no mass, no solution existed. Further experiments involving the Double-Slit Experiment confirmed the dual nature of photons. where measuring devices were incorporated to observe the photons as they passed through the slits.
When this was done, the photons appeared in the form of particles and their impacts on the screen corresponded to the slits – tiny particle-sized spots distributed in straight vertical lines. By placing an observation device in place, the wave function of the photons collapsed and the light behaved as classical particles once more. As predicted by Schrödinger, this could only be resolved by claiming that light has a wave function, and that observing it causes the range of behavioral possibilities to collapse to the point where its behavior becomes predictable.
The development of Quantum Field Theory (QFT) was devised in the following decades to resolve much of the ambiguity around wave-particle duality. And in time, this theory was shown to apply to other particles and fundamental forces of interaction (such as weak and strong nuclear forces). Today, photons are part of the Standard Model of particle physics, where they are classified as boson – a class of subatomic particles that are force carriers and have no mass.
So how does light travel? Basically, traveling at incredible speeds (299 792 458 m/s) and at different wavelengths, depending on its energy. It also behaves as both a wave and a particle, able to propagate through mediums (like air and water) as well as space. It has no mass, but can still be absorbed, reflected, or refracted if it comes in contact with a medium. And in the end, the only thing that can truly divert it, or arrest it, is gravity (i.e. a black hole).
What we have learned about light and electromagnetism has been intrinsic to the revolution which took place in physics in the early 20th century, a revolution that we have been grappling with ever since. Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg and Schrodinger, we have learned much, but still have much to learn.
For instance, its interaction with gravity (along with weak and strong nuclear forces) remains a mystery. Unlocking this, and thus discovering a Theory of Everything (ToE) is something astronomers and physicists look forward to. Someday, we just might have it all figured out!
The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with advancements being made in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences. But it was perhaps in the field of astronomy that the greatest achievements were made. In the space of a century, several planets and moons were observed for the first time, accurate models were made to predict the motions of the planets, and the law of universal gravitation was conceived.
In the midst of this, the name of Christiaan Huygens stands out among the rest. As one of the preeminent scientists of his time, he was pivotal in the development of clocks, mechanics and optics. And in the field of astronomy, he discovered Saturn’s Rings and its largest moon – Titan. Thanks to Huygens, subsequent generations of astronomers were inspired to explore the outer Solar System, leading to the discovery of other Cronian moons, Uranus, and Neptune in the following century.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Galileo is considered one of the greatest astronomers of all time. His discovery of Jupiter’s major moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto) revolutionized astronomy and helped speed the acceptance of the Copernican Model of the universe. However, Galileo is also known for the numerous scientific inventions he made during his lifetime.
These included his famous telescope, but also a series of devices that would have a profound impact on surveying, the use of artillery, the development of clocks, and meteorology. Galileo created many of these in order to earn extra money to support his family. But ultimately, they would help cement his reputation as the man who challenged centuries worth of previously-held notions and revolutionized the sciences.
Inspired by the story of Archimedes’ and his “Eureka” moment, Galileo began looking into how jewelers weighed precious metals in air, and then by displacement, to determine their specific gravity. In 1586, at the age of 22, he theorized of a better method, which he described in a treatise entitled La Bilancetta (or “The Little Balance”).
In this tract, he described an accurate balance for weighing things in air and water, in which the part of the arm on which the counter weight was hung was wrapped with metal wire. The amount by which the counterweight had to be moved when weighing in water could then be determined very accurately by counting the number of turns of the wire. In so doing, the proportion of metals like gold to silver in the object could be read off directly.
In 1592, Galileo was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Padua and made frequent trips to the Arsenal – the inner harbor where Venetian ships were fitted out. The Arsenal had been a place of practical invention and innovation for centuries, and Galileo used the opportunity to study mechanical devices in detail.
In 1593, he was consulted on the placement of oars in galleys and submitted a report in which he treated the oar as a lever and correctly made the water the fulcrum. A year later the Venetian Senate awarded him a patent for a device for raising water that relied on a single horse for operation. This became the basis of modern pumps.
To some, Galileo’s Pump was a merely an improvement on the Archimedes Screw, which was first developed in the third century BCE and patented in the Venetian Republic in 1567. However, there is apparent evidence connecting Galileo’s invention to Archimedes earlier and less sophisticated design.
During the 16th century, Aristotelian physics was still the predominant way of explaining the behavior of bodies near the Earth. For example, it was believed that heavy bodies sought their natural place or rest – i.e at the center of things. As a result, no means existed to explain the behavior of pendulums, where a heavy body suspended from a rope would swing back and forth and not seek rest in the middle.
Already, Galileo had conducted experiments that demonstrated that heavier bodies did not fall faster than lighter ones – another belief consistent with Aristotelian theory. In addition, he also demonstrated that objects thrown into the air travel in parabolic arcs. Based on this and his fascination with the back and forth motion of a suspended weight, he began to research pendulums in 1588.
In 1602, he explained his observations in a letter to a friend, in which he described the principle of isochronism. According to Galileo, this principle asserted that the time it takes for the pendulum to swing is not linked to the arc of the pendulum, but rather the pendulum’s length. Comparing two pendulum’s of similar length, Galileo demonstrated that they would swing at the same speed, despite being pulled at different lengths.
According to Vincenzo Vivian, one of Galileo’s contemporaries, it was in 1641 while under house arrest that Galileo created a design for a pendulum clock. Unfortunately, being blind at the time, he was unable to complete it before his death in 1642. As a result, Christiaan Huygens’ publication of Horologrium Oscillatoriumin 1657 is recognized as the first recorded proposal for a pendulum clock.
The cannon, which was first introduced to Europe in 1325, had become a mainstay of war by Galileo’s time. Having become more sophisticated and mobile, gunners needed instrumentation to help them coordinate and calculate their fire. As such, between 1595 and 1598, Galileo devised and improved a geometric and military compass for use by gunners and surveyors.
Existing gunner’s compasses relied on two arms at right angles and a circular scale with a plumb line to determine elevations. Meanwhile, mathematical compasses, or dividers, developed during this time were designed with various useful scales on their legs. Galileo combined the uses of both instruments, designing a compass or sector that had many useful scales engraved on its legs that could be used for a variety of purposes.
In addition to offering a new and safer way for gunners to elevate their cannons accurately, it also offered a quicker way of computing the amount of gunpowder needed based on the size and material of the cannonball. As a geometric instrument, it enabled the construction of any regular polygon, computation of the area of any polygon or circular sector, and a variety of other calculations.
During the late 16th century, there existed no practical means for scientists to measure heat and temperature. Attempts to rectify this within the Venetian intelligentsia resulted in the thermoscope, an instrument that built on the idea of the expansion of air due to the presence of heat.
In ca. 1593, Galileo constructed his own version of a thermoscope that relied on the expansion and contraction of air in a bulb to move water in an attached tube. Over time, he and his colleagues worked to develop a numerical scale that would measure the heat based on the expansion of the water inside the tube.
And while it would take another century before scientists – such as Daniel G. Fahrenheit and Anders Celsius – began developing universal temperature scales that could be used in such instrument, Galileo’s thermoscope was a major breakthrough. In addition to being able to measure heat in air, it also provided quantitative meteorological information for the first time ever.
While Galileo did not invent the telescope, he greatly improved upon them. Over the course of many months during 1609, he unveiled multiple telescope designs that would collectively come to be known as Galilean Telescopes. The first, which he constructed between June and July of 1609, was a three-powered spyglass, which he replaced by August with an eight-powered instrument that he presented to the Venetian Senate.
By the following October or November, he managed to improve upon this with the creation a twenty-powered telescope – the very telescope that he used to observe the Moon, discover the four satellites of Jupiter (thereafter known as the Galilean Moons), discern the phases of Venus, and resolve nebular patches into stars.
These discoveries helped Galileo to advance the Copernican Model, which essentially stated that the Sun (and not the Earth) was the center of the universe (aka. heliocentrism). He would go on to refine his designs further, eventually creating a telescope that could magnify objects by a factor of 30.
Though these telescopes were humble by modern standards, they were a vast improvement over the models that existed during Galileo’s time. The fact that he managed to construct them all himself is yet another reason why they are considered his most impressive inventions.
Because of the instruments he created and the discoveries they helped make, Galileo is rightly recognized as one of the most important figures of the Scientific Revolution. His many theoretical contributions to the fields of mathematics, engineering and physics also challenged Aristotelian theories that had been accepted for centuries.
In short, he was one of just a few people who – through their tireless pursuit of scientific truth – forever changed our understanding of the universe and the fundamental laws that govern it.
Dr. Kevin Grazier was a planetary scientist with the Cassini mission for over 15 years, studying Saturn and its icy rings. He was also the science advisor for Battlestar Galactica, Eureka and the movie Gravity.
Mike Brown is a professor of planetary astronomy at Caltech. He’s best known as the man who killed Pluto, thanks to his team’s discovery of Eris and other Kuiper Belt Objects.
We recently asked them about many things – here’s what they shared with us about the rings of Saturn.
Saturn’s majestic, iconic rings define the planet, but where did they come from?
Kevin Grazier: “Saturn’s rings, good question. And the answer is different depending on which ring we’re discussing.”
That’s Dr. Kevin Grazier, a planetary scientist who worked on NASA’s Cassini mission or over 15 years, studying Saturn’s rings extensively.
Mike Brown: “Saturn’s rings – the strange things about Saturn’s rings is that they shouldn’t be there, really, in the sense that they don’t last for very long. So, if they are just left over from when Saturn was formed, they’d be gone by now. They would slowly work their way into Saturn and burn up and be gone. And yet they’re there. So they are either relatively new or somehow continuously regenerated. ‘Continuously regenerated’ seems strange and ‘relatively new’ seems also kind of strange. Something broke up – a large moon broke up, or a comet broke up – something had to have happened relatively recently. And by relatively recently, that means hundreds of millions of years ago for someone like me.”
And that’s Mike Brown, professor of planetary geology at Caltech, who studies many of the icy objects in the Solar System.
Saturn’s rings start just 7,000 km above the surface of the planet, and extend out to an altitude of 80,000 km. But they’re gossamer thin, just 10 km across at some points.
We’ve known about Saturn’s rings since 1610, when Galileo was the first person to turn a telescope on them. The resolution was primitive, and he thought he saw “handles” attached to Saturn, or perhaps what were big moons on either side.
In 1659, using a better telescope, the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens figured out that these “handles” were actually rings. And finally in the 1670s, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini was able to resolve the rings in more detail, even observed the biggest gap in the rings.
The Cassini mission, named after Giovanni, has been with Saturn for almost a decade, allowing us to view the rings in incredible detail. Determining the origin and evolution of Saturn’s rings has been one of its objectives.
So far, the argument continues:
Kevin Grazier: “There’s an age-old debate about whether the rings are old or new. And that goes back and forth – it’s been going back and forth for ages and it still goes back and forth. Are they old, or have they been there a long period of time? Are they new? I don’t know what to think, to be quite honest. I’m not being wishy-washy, I just don’t know what to think anymore.”
Evidence from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft indicated that the material in Saturn’s rings was young. Perhaps a comet shattered one of Saturn’s moons within the last few hundred million years, creating the rings we see today. If that was the case case, what incredible luck that we’re here to see the rings in their current form.
But when Cassini arrived, it showed evidence that Saturn’s rings are being refreshed, which could explain why they appear so young. Perhaps they are ancient after all.
Kevin Grazier: “If Saturn’s rings are old, a moon could have gotten too close to Saturn and been pulled apart by tidal stresses. There could have been a collision of moons. It could have been a pass by a nearby object, since in the early days of planetary formation, there were many objects zooming past Saturn. Saturn probably had a halo of material in it’s early days that was loosely bound to the moon.”
There is one ring that we know for certain is being refreshed…
Kevin Grazier: “The E-Ring, certainly a new ring, because the E-Ring consists of roughly micron-sized ice particles. And micron-sized ice particles don’t last in space. They sputter and sublimate – they go away in very short time periods, and we knew that. And so when we went to Saturn with Cassini, we knew to look for a source of materiel because we knew that the individual components of the E-Ring don’t last, so it has to be replenished. So the E-Ring stands alone from the established system, and the E-Ring is absolutely new.”
In 2005, scientist discovered that Saturn’s E-Ring is being constantly replenished by the moon Enceladus. Cryovolcanoes spew water ice into space from a series of fissures at its south pole.
So where did Saturn’s rings come from? We don’t know. Are the new or old? We don’t know. It just another great mystery of the Solar System.
And now we finish our trilogy of Saturnian astronomers and missions with a look at the Dutch astronomer and mathematician, Christiaan Huygens. It was Huygens who discovered Titan, and figured out what Saturn’s rings really are, so it makes sense that a probe landing on the surface of Titan was named after him.
It’s too bad that they missed Black Friday, but you’ll at least be able to get a few gifts for that astronomy enthusiast friend of yours for Christmas (or even for yourself!). The auction house Christie’s will be putting on the block 160 pieces from Edward Tufte’s rare book collection December 2nd in New York City.
Among the works are original 1st edition copies of such books as Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704), and Galileo Galilee’s Sidereus nuncius (1610) which is better known in English as The Starry Messenger. Galileo famously reported some of his early telescopic observations in this book, discovering the moons of Jupiter and craters and mountains on the Moon. There will also be a copy of René Descartes’ Principia philosophiae (1644) and various works by other famous astronomers, philosophers and scientists.
Edward Tufte is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Statistics, and Computer Science at Yale University. According to his bio on their site, “His research concerns statistical evidence and scientific visualization.” Looking through the Christie’s catalog, his interests in science history and visualization are well-represented, and the collection is quite impressive.
Of course, all of these items come at a price, rare and famous as they are. Would you expect anything less from such a notable auction house? Opticks is billed to sell for $30,000 – $40,000, Principia philosophiae for $6,000 – $8,000 and Siderius nuncius – the most expensive of the entire lot – is valued at between $600,000-$800,000 (all amounts in US Dollars). Here are a few other items for sale, accompanied by their expected fetching price:
– John Snow – On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849) $10,000 – $15,000 This is an important book that revolutionized our understanding of disease transmission. Steven Johnson’s book Ghost Map is based on this work, and is a fascinating read.
– Euclid – Elements $400 – $600 A 1589 copy of this important mathematical work that underlies our understanding of physics and math today. Euclid was born around 300 BC, and the oldest fragment of the Elements only dates to 100 AD.
– Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth(1651). $15,000 – $20,000 A very influential work in the history of political philosophy and social contract theory. You may recognize this quote from chapter 12 of the book, “…and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
– Christiaan Huygens – Systema Saturnium (1659) $25,000 – $35,000 This is a digest of Huygens’ observations of the Saturnian system, and contains one of the first drawings of the Orion nebula.
– Edmund Halley – A description of the passage of the shadow of the moon, over England, in the total eclipse of the sun, on the 22nd day of April 1715 in the morning. (1715) $15,000 – $20,000 An illustrated broadside of Halley’s prediction of the shadow cast by the lunar eclipse on April 22nd, 1715. There are a few other works from Halley for sale as well.
I suggest sifting through the catalog – there are a lot of detailed photos and descriptions of the books for sale, many of them rare gems from the history of philosophy and astronomy and science.
Tufte is also selling a piece of his own artwork for $50,000 – $70,000 titled, Pioneer Space Plaque: A Cosmic Prank (2010). A digital print that uses animation electronics, it is a redesign – and parody – of the original plaques that still fly aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes. For a picture, visit the auction page.