Just Like Earth, Titan Has a “Sea Level” for its Lakes and Seas

Thanks to the Cassini mission, we have learned some truly amazing things about Saturn and its largest moon, Titan. This includes information on its dense atmosphere, its geological features, its methane lakes, methane cycle, and organic chemistry. And even though Cassini recently ended its mission by crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere, scientists are still pouring over all of the data it obtained during its 13 years in the Saturn system.

And now, using Cassini data, two teams led by researchers from Cornell University have released two new studies that reveal even more interesting things about Titan. In one, the team created a complete topographic map of Titan using Cassini’s entire data set. In the second, the team revealed that Titan’s seas have a common elevation, much like how we have a “sea level” here on Earth.

The two studies recently appeared in the Geophysical Research Letters, titled “Titan’s Topography and Shape at the End of the Cassini Mission” and “Topographic Constraints on the Evolution and Connectivity of Titan’s Lacustrine Basins“. The studies were led by Professor Paul Corlies and Assistant Professor Alex Hayes of Cornell University, respectively, and included members from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the US Geological Survey (USGS), Stanford University, and the Sapienza Universita di Roma.

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
This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon’s thick, hazy atmosphere. Credit: NASA

In the first paper, the authors described how topographic data from multiple sources was combined to create a global map of Titan. Since only about 9% of Titan was observed with high-resolution topography (and 25-30% in lower resolution) the remainder of the moon was mapped with an interpolation algorithm. Combined with a global minimization process, this reduced errors that would arise from such things as spacecraft location.

The map revealed new features on Titan, as well as a global view of the highs and lows of the moon’s topography. For instance, the maps showed several new mountains which reach a maximum elevation of 700 meters (about 3000 ft). Using the map, scientists were also able to confirm that two locations in the equatorial regions are depressions that could be the result of ancient seas that have since dried up or cryovolcanic flows.

The map also suggests that Titan may be more oblate than previously thought, which could mean that the crust varies in thickness. The data set is available online, and the map which the team created from it is already proving its worth to the scientific community. As Professor Corlies explained in a Cornell press release:

“The main point of the work was to create a map for use by the scientific community… We’re measuring the elevation of a liquid surface on another body 10 astronomical units away from the sun to an accuracy of roughly 40 centimeters. Because we have such amazing accuracy we were able to see that between these two seas the elevation varied smoothly about 11 meters, relative to the center of mass of Titan, consistent with the expected change in the gravitational potential. We are measuring Titan’s geoid. This is the shape that the surface would take under the influence of gravity and rotation alone, which is the same shape that dominates Earth’s oceans.”

False-color mosaic of Titan’s northern lakes, made from infrared data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Looking ahead, this map will play an important role when it comes tr scientists seeking to model Titan’s climate, study its shape and gravity, and its surface morphology. In addition, it will be especially helpful for those looking to test interior models of Titan, which is fundamental to determining if the moon could harbor life. Much like Europa and Enceladus, it is believed that Titan has a liquid water ocean and hydrothermal vents at its core-mantle boundary.

The second study, which also employed the new topographical map, was based on Cassini radar data that was obtained up to just a few months before the spacecraft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere. Using this data, Assistant Professor Hayes and his team determined that Titan’s seas follow a constant elevation relative to Titan’s gravitational pull. Basically, they found that Titan has a sea level, much like Earth. As Hayes explained:

“We’re measuring the elevation of a liquid surface on another body 10 astronomical units away from the sun to an accuracy of roughly 40 centimeters. Because we have such amazing accuracy we were able to see that between these two seas the elevation varied smoothly about 11 meters, relative to the center of mass of Titan, consistent with the expected change in the gravitational potential. We are measuring Titan’s geoid. This is the shape that the surface would take under the influence of gravity and rotation alone, which is the same shape that dominates Earth’s oceans.”

This common elevation is important because liquid bodies on Titan appear to be connected by something resembling an aquifer system. Much like how water flows underground through porous rock and gravel on Earth, hydrocarbons do the same thing under Titan’s icy surface. This ensures that there is transference between large bodies of water, and that they share a common sea level.

Artist concept of Cassini’s last moments at Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL.

“We don’t see any empty lakes that are below the local filled lakes because, if they did go below that level, they would be filled themselves,”  said Hayes. “This suggests that there’s flow in the subsurface and that they are communicating with each other. It’s also telling us that there is liquid hydrocarbon stored on the subsurface of Titan.”

Meanwhile, smaller lakes on Titan appear at elevations several hundred meters above Titan’s sea level. This is not dissimilar to what happens on Earth, where large lakes are often found at higher elevations. These are known as “Alpine Lakes”, and some well-known examples include Lake Titicaca in the Andes, Lakes Geneva in the Alps, and Paradise Lake in the Rockies.

Last, but not least, the study also revealed the vast majority of Titan’s lakes are found within sharp-edged depressions that are surrounded by high ridges, some of which are hundreds of meters high. Here too, there is a resemblance to features on Earth – such as the Florida Everglades – where underlying material dissolves and causes the surface to collapse, forming holes in the ground.

The shape of these lakes indicate that they may be expanding at a constant rate, a process known as uniform scarp retreat. In fact, the largest lake in the south – Ontario Lacus – resembles a series of smaller empty lakes that have coalesced to form a single feature. This process is apparently due to seasonal change, where autumn in the southern hemisphere leads to more evaporation.

While the Cassini mission is no longer exploring the Saturn system, the data it accumulated during its multi-year mission is still bearing fruit. Between these latest studies, and the many more that will follow, scientists are likely to reveal a great deal more about this mysterious moon and the forces that shape it!

Further Reading: NASA, Cornell University, Geophysical Research Letters

Scientists Find Evidence of Extreme Methane Storms On Titan

Titan's atmosphere makes Saturn's largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is a mysterious place; and the more we learn about it, the more surprises it seems to have in store. Aside from being the only body beyond Earth that has a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, it also has methane lakes on its surface and methane clouds in its atmosphere. This hydrological-cycle, where methane is converted from a liquid to a gas and back again, is very similar to the water cycle here on Earth.

Thanks to the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission, which concluded on September 15th when the craft crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, we have learned a great deal about this moon in recent years. The latest find, which was made by a team of UCLA planetary scientists and geologists, has to do with Titan’s methane rain storms. Despite being a rare occurrence, these rainstorms can apparently become rather extreme.

The study which details their findings, titled “Regional Patterns of Extreme Precipitation on Titan Consistent with Observed Alluvial Fan Distribution“, recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience. Led by Saun P. Faulk, a graduate student at UCLA’s Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences, the team conducted simulations of Titan’s rainfall to determine how extreme weather events have shaped the moon’s surface.

Image of Titan’s atmosphere, snapped by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

What they found was that the extreme methane rainstorms may imprint the moon’s icy surface in much the same way that extreme rainstorms shape Earth’s rocky surface. On Earth, intense rainstorms play an important role in geological evolution. When rainfall is heavy enough, storms can trigger large flows of water that transport sediment into low lands, where it forms cone-shaped features known as alluvial fans.

During it’s mission, the Cassini orbiter found evidence of similar features on Titan using its radar instrument, which suggested that Titan’s surface could be affected by intense rainfall. While these fans are a new discovery, scientists have been studying the surface of Titan ever since Cassini first reached the Saturn system in 2006. In that time, they have noted several interesting features.

These included the vast sand dunes that dominate Titan’s lower latitudes and the methane lakes and seas that dominate it’s higher latitudes – particularly around the  northern polar region. The seas – Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, and Punga Mare – measure hundreds of km across and up to several hundred meters deep, and are fed by branching, river-like channels. There are also many smaller, shallower lakes that have rounded edges and steep walls, and are generally found in flat areas.

In this case, the UCLA scientists found that the alluvial fans are predominantly located between 50 and 80 degrees latitude. This puts them close to the center of the northern and southern hemispheres, though slightly closer to the poles than the equator. To test how Titan’s own rainstorms could cause these features, the UCLA team relied on computer simulations of Titan’s hydrological cycle.

False-color mosaic of Titan’s northern lakes, made from infrared data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

What they found was that while rain mostly accumulates near the poles – where Titan’s major lakes and seas are located – the most intense rainstorms occur near 60 degrees latitude. This corresponds to the region where alluvial fans are most heavily concentrated, and indicates that when Titan does experience rainfall, it is quite extreme – like a seasonal monsoon-like downpour.

As Jonathan Mitchell – a UCLA associate professor of planetary science and a senior author of the study – indicated, this is not dissimilar to some extreme weather events that were recently experienced here on Earth. “The most intense methane storms in our climate model dump at least a foot of rain a day, which comes close to what we saw in Houston from Hurricane Harvey this summer,” he said.

The team also found that on Titan, methane rainstorms are rather rare, occurring less than once per Titan year – which works out to 29 and a half Earth years. But according to Mitchell, who is also the principal investigator of UCLA’s Titan climate modeling research group, this is more often than they were expecting. “I would have thought these would be once-a-millennium events, if even that,” he said. “So this is quite a surprise.”

In the past, climate models of Titan have suggested that liquid methane generally concentrates closer to the poles. But no previous study has investigated how precipitation might cause sediment transport and erosion, or shown how this would account for various features observed on the surface. As a result, this study also suggests that regional variations in surface features could be caused by regional variations in precipitation.

On top of that, this study is an indication that Earth and Titan have even more in common than previously thought. On Earth, contrasts in temperature are what lead to intense seasonal weather events. In North America, tornadoes occur during the early to late Spring, while blizzards occur during the winter. Meanwhile, temperature variations in the Atlantic ocean are what lead to hurricanes forming between the summer and fall.

Similarly, it appears that on Titan, serious variations in temperature and moisture are what triggers extreme weather. When cooler, wetter air from the higher latitudes interacts with warmer, drier air from the lower latitudes, intense rainstorms result. These findings are also significant when it comes to other bodies in our Solar System that  have alluvial fans on them – such as Mars.

In the end, understanding the relationship between precipitation and planetary surfaces could lead to new insights about the impact climate change has on Earth and the other planets. Such knowledge would also go a long way towards helping us mitigate the effects it is having here on Earth, where the changes are only unnatural, but also sudden and very hazardous.

And who knows? Someday, it could even help us to alter the environments on other planets and bodies, thus making them more suitable for long-term human settlement (aka. terraforming)!

Further Reading: UCLA, Nature

Titan’s Lakes are Nice and Calm. The Perfect Spot for a Landing

Ever since the Cassini orbiter and the Huygens lander provided us with the first detailed glimpse of Saturn’s moon Titan, scientists have been eager to mount new missions to this mysterious moon. Between its hydrocarbon lakes, its surface dunes, its incredibly dense atmosphere, and the possibility of it having an interior ocean, there is no shortage of things that are worthy of research.

The only question is, what form would this mission take (i.e. aerial drone, submarine, balloon, lander) and where should it set down? According to a new study led by the University of Texas at Austin, Titan’s methane lakes are very calm and do not appear to experience high waves. As such, these seas may be the ideal place for future missions to set down on the moon.

Their study, which was titled “Surface Roughness of Titan’s Hydrocarbon Seas“, appeared in the June 29th issue of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. Led by Cyril Grima, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG), the team behind the study sought to determine just how active the lakes are in Titan’s northern polar region are.

Titan’s three largest lakes and their surrounding areas as seen by the Cassini RADAR instrument. The researchers used the instrument to study waves on the lake surfaces. Credit: Cyril Grima/ The University of Texas at Austin

As Grima explained in a University of Texas press release, this research also shed light on the meteorological activity on Titan:

“There’s a lot of interest in one day sending probes to the lakes, and when that’s done, you want to have a safe landing, and you don’t want a lot of wind. Our study shows that because the waves aren’t very high, the winds are likely low.”

Towards this end, Grima and his colleagues examined radar data obtained by the Cassini mission during Titan’s early summer season. This consisted of measurements of Titan’s northern lakes, which included Ontario Lacus,  Ligeia Mare, Punga Mare, and Kraken Mare. The largest of the three, Kraken Mars, is estimated to be larger than the Caspian Sea – i.e. 4,000,000 km² (1,544,409 mi²) vs 3,626,000 km2 (1,400,000 mi²).

With the help of the Cassini RADAR Team and researchers from Cornell University, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and elsewhere, the team applied a technique known as radar statistical reconnaissance. Developed by Grima, this technique relies on radar data to measure the roughness of surfaces in minute detail.

This technique has also been used to measure snow density and the surface roughness of ice in Antarctica and the Arctic. Similarly, NASA has used the technique for the sake of selecting a landing site on Mars for their Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (Insight) lander, which is scheduled to launch next year.

The left image shows a mosaic of images of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft in near infrared light. Titan’s polar seas are visible as sunlight glints off of them. The right image is a radar image of Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The left image shows a mosaic of images of Titan taken by the Cassini spacecraft in near infrared light. Titan’s polar seas are visible as sunlight glints off of them. The right image is a radar image of Kraken Mare. Credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

From this, Grima and his colleagues determined that waves on these lakes are quite small, reaching only 1 cm in height and 20 cm in length. These findings indicate that these lakes would be a serene enough environment that future probes could make soft landings on them and then begin the task of exploring the surface of the moon. As with all bodies, waves on Titan could be wind-driven, triggered by tidal flows, or the result of rain or debris.

As a result, these results are calling into question what scientists think about seasonal change on Titan. In the past, it was believed that summer on Titan was the beginning of moon’s windy season. But if this were the case, the results would have indicated higher waves (the result of higher winds). As Alex Hayes, an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University and a co-author on the study, explained:

“Cyril’s work is an independent measure of sea roughness and helps to constrain the size and nature of any wind waves. From the results, it looks like we are right near the threshold for wave generation, where patches of the sea are smooth and patches are rough.”

These results are also exciting for scientists who are hoping to plot future missions to Titan, especially by those who are hoping to see a robotic submarine sent to Titan’s to investigate its lakes for possible signs of life. Other mission concepts involve exploring Titan’s interior ocean, its surface, and its atmosphere for the sake of learning more about the moon’s environment, its organic-rich environment and probiotic chemistry.

And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, these missions will find that life in our Solar System is more exotic than we give it credit before, going beyond the carbon-based life that we are familiar with to include the methanogenic.

Further Reading: University of Texas JSG, Earth and Planetary Science Letters

The Bubbly Streams Of Titan

The appearing and disappearing feature observed in Titan's Lakes was dubbed "Magic Island". Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Saturn’s largest Moon, Titan, is the only other world in our Solar System that has stable liquid on its surface. That alone, and the fact that the liquid is composed of methane, ethane, and nitrogen, makes it an object of fascination. The bright spot features that Cassini observed in the methane seas that dot the polar regions only deepen the fascination.

A new paper published in Nature Astronomy digs deeper into a phenomenon in Titan’s seas that has been puzzling scientists. In 2013, Cassini noticed a feature that wasn’t there on previous fly-bys of the same region. In subsequent images, the feature had disappeared again. What could it be?

One explanation is that the feature could be a disappearing island, rising and falling in the liquid. This idea took hold, but was only an initial guess. Adding to the mystery was the doubling in size of these potential islands. Others speculated that they could be waves, the first waves observed anywhere other than on Earth. Binding all of these together was the idea that the appearance and disappearance could be caused by seasonal changes on the moon.

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

Now, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) think they know what’s behind these so-called ‘disappearing islands,’ and it seems like they are related to seasonal changes.

The study was led by Michael Malaska of JPL. The researchers simulated the frigid conditions on Titan, where the temperature is -179.2 Celsius. At that temperature, some interesting things happen to the nitrogen in Titan’s atmosphere.

On Titan, it rains. But the rain is composed of extremely cold methane. As that methane falls to the surface, it absorbs significant amounts of nitrogen from the atmosphere. The rain hits Titan’s surface and collects in the lakes on the moon’s polar regions.

The researchers manipulated the conditions in their experiments to mirror the changes that occur on Titan. They changed the temperature, the pressure, and the methane/ethane composition. As they did so, they found that nitrogen bubbled out of solution.

“Our experiments showed that when methane-rich liquids mix with ethane-rich ones — for example from a heavy rain, or when runoff from a methane river mixes into an ethane-rich lake — the nitrogen is less able to stay in solution,” said Michael Malaska of JPL. This release of nitrogen is called exsolution. It can occur when the seasons change on Titan, and the seas of methane and ethane experience a slight warming.

“Thanks to this work on nitrogen’s solubility, we’re now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we’d expected,” said Jason Hofgartner of JPL, a co-author of the study who also works on Cassini’s radar team. These nitrogen bubbles would be very reflective, which explains why Cassini was able to see them.

The first-ever images of the surface of a new moon or planet are always exciting. The Huygens probe was launched from Cassini to the surface of Titan, but was not able investigate the lakes and seas on the surface. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
The first-ever images of the surface of a new moon or planet are always exciting. The Huygens probe was launched from Cassini to the surface of Titan, but was not able investigate the lakes and seas on the surface. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The seas on Titan may be what’s called a prebiotic environment, where chemical conditions are hospitable to the appearance of life. Some think that the seas may already be home to life, though there’s no evidence of this, and Cassini wasn’t equipped to investigate that premise. Some experiments have shown that an atmosphere like Titan’s could generate complex molecules, and even the building blocks of life.

NASA and others have talked about different ways to explore Titan, including balloons, a drone, splashdown landers, and even a submarine. The submarine idea even received a NASA grant in 2015, to develop the idea further.

So, mystery solved, probably. Titan’s bright spots are neither islands nor waves, but bubbles.

Cassini’s mission will end soon, and it’ll be quite some time before Titan can be investigated further. The question of whether Titan’s seas are hospitable to the formation of life, or whether there may already be life there, will have to wait. What role the nitrogen bubbles play in Titan’s life question will also have to wait.

Exploring Titan with Aerial Platforms

Last week, from Monday Feb. 27th to Wednesday March 1st, NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. During the course of the many presentations, speeches and addresses that made up the workshop, NASA and its affiliates shared their many proposals for the future of Solar System exploration.

A very popular theme during the workshop was the exploration of Titan. In addition to being the only other body in the Solar System with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and visible liquid on its surface, it also has an environment rich in organic chemistry. For this reason, a team led by Michael Pauken (from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) held a presentation detailing the many ways it can be explored using aerial vehicles.

The presentation, which was titled “Science at a Variety of Scientific Regions at Titan using Aerial Platforms“, was  also chaired by members of the aerospace industry – such as AeroVironment and Global Aerospace from Monrovia, California, and Thin Red Line Aerospace from Chilliwack, BC. Together, they reviewed the various aerial platform concepts that have been proposed for Titan since 2004.

Artist depiction of the ESA’s Huygens lander setting down on Titan, which took place on January 14th. Credit: ESA

While the concept of exploring Titan with aerial drones and balloons dates back to the 1970s and 80s, 2004 was especially important since it was at this time that the Huygens lander conducted the first exploration of the moon’s surface. Since that time, many interesting and feasible proposals for aerial platforms have been made. As Dr. Pauken told Universe Today via email:

The Cassini-Huygens mission revealed a lot about Titan we didn’t know before and that has also raised a lot more questions. It helped us determine that imaging the surface is possible below 40-km altitude so it’s exciting to know we could take aerial photos of Titan and send them back home.”

These concepts can be divided into two categories, which are Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) craft and Heavier-Than-Air (HTA) craft. And as Pauken explained, these are both well-suited when it comes to exploring a moon like Titan, which has an atmosphere that is actually denser than Earth’s – 146.7 kPa at the surface compared to 101 kPa at sea level on Earth – but only 0.14 times the gravity (similar to the Moon).

“The density of Titan’s atmosphere is higher than Earth’s so it is excellent for flying lighter-than-air vehicles like a balloon,” he said. “Titan’s low gravity is a benefit for heavier-than-air vehicles like helicopters or airplanes since they will ‘weigh’ less than they would on Earth.

Titan’s atmosphere makes Saturn’s largest moon look like a fuzzy orange ball in this natural-color view from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini captured this image in 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“The Lighter-than-air LTA concepts are buoyant and don’t need any energy to stay aloft, so more energy can be directed towards science instruments and communications. The Heavier-than-air concepts have to consume power to stay in the air which takes away from science and telecom. But HTA can be directed to targets more quickly and accurately the LTA vehicles which mostly drift with the winds.”

TSSM Montgolfiere Balloon:

Plans for using a Montgolfiere balloon to explore Titan go back to 2008, when NASA and the ESA jointly developed the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) concept. A Flagship Mission concept, the TSSM would consist of three elements including a NASA orbiter and two ESA-designed in-situ elements – a lander to explore Titan’s lakes and a Montgolfiere balloon to explore its atmosphere.

The orbiter would rely on a Radioisotopic Power System (RPS) and Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) to reach the Saturn system. And on its way to Titan, it would be responsible for examining Saturn’s magnetosphere, flying through the plumes of Enceladus to analyze it for biological markers, and taking images of Enceladus’ “Tiger Stripes” in the southern polar region.

Artist’s concept of a Mongolfiere balloon and a deployable lander at Titan. Credit: NASA

Once the orbiter had achieved orbital insertion with Saturn, it would release the Montgolfiere during its first Titan flyby. Attitude control for the balloon would be provided by heating the ambient gas with RPS waste heat. The prime mission would last a total of about 4 years, comprised of a two-year Saturn tour, a 2-month Titan aero-sampling phase, and a 20-month Titan orbiting phase.

Of the benefits to this concept, the most obvious is the fact that a Montgolfiere vehicle powered by RPS could operate within Titan’s atmosphere for many years and would be able to change altitude with only minimal energy use. At the time, the TSSM concept was in competition with mission proposals for the moons of Europa and Ganymede.

In February of 2009, both the TSSM and the the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) concept were chosen to move forward with development, but the EJSM was given first priority. This mission was renamed the Europa Clipper, and is slated for launch in 2020 (and arriving at Europa by 2026).

Titan Helium Balloon:

Subsequent research on Montgolfiere balloons revealed that years of service and minimal energy expenditure could also be achieved in a much more compact balloon design. By combining an enveloped-design with helium, such a platform could operate in the skies of Titan for four times as long as balloons here on Earth, thanks to a much slower rate of diffusion.

Artist’s concept of the Mechanical Compression Altitude Control (MCAC) balloon, which is comprised of a number of segments that are compressed by shortening a tether that runs down the axis of the balloon. Credit: Thin Red Line Aerospace.

Altitude control would also be possible with very modest amounts of energy, which could be provided either through pump or mechanical compression. Thus, with an RPS providing power, the platform could be expected to last longer that comparable balloon designs. This envelope-helium balloon could also be paired with a glider to create a lighter-than-air vehicle capable of lateral motion as well.

Examples of the this include the Titan Winged Aerobot (TWA, shown below), which was investigated as part of NASA’s Phase One 2016 Small-Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Developed by the Global Aerospace Corporation, in collaboration with Northrop Grumman, the TWA is a hybrid entry vehicle, balloon, and maneuverable glider with 3-D directional control that could satisfy many science objectives.

Like the Mongtolfiere concept, it would rely on minimal power provided by a single RPS. Its unique buoyancy system would also allow it to descend and ascend without the need for propulsion systems or control surfaces. One drawback is the fact that it cannot land on the moon’s surface to conduct research and then take off again. However, the design does allow for low-altitude flight, which would allow for the delivery of probes to the surface.

Other concepts that have been developed in recent years include heavier-than-air aircraft, which center around the development of fixed-wing vehicles and rotorcraft.

Concept for a Titan Winged Aerobot, a hybrid balloon glider that does not require significant power either to stay aloft or to achieve lateral motion. Credit: Global Aerospace Corp/Northrup Grumman

Fixed Wing Vehicles:

Concepts for fixed-wing aircraft have also been proposed in the past for a mission to Titan. A notable example of this is the Aerial Vehicle for In-situ and Airborne Titan Reconnaissance (AVIATR), an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that was proposed by Jason Barnes and Lawrence Lemke in 2011 (of the University of Idaho and Central Michigan University, respectively).

Relying on an RPS that would use the waste heat of decaying Plutonium 238 to power a small rear-mounted turbine, this low-power craft would take advantage of Titan’s dense atmosphere and low gravity to conduct sustained flight. A novel “climb-then-glide” strategy, where the engine would shut down during glide periods, would also allow for power to be stored for optimal use during telecommunication sessions.

This addresses a major drawback of fixed-wing vehicles, which is the need to subdivide power between the needs of maintaining flight and conducting scientific research. However, the AVIATR is limited in one respect, in that it cannot descend to the surface to conduct science experiments or collect samples.


Last, but not least, is the concept for a rotorcraft. In this case, the aerial platform would be a quadcopter, which would be well-suited to Titan’s atmosphere, would allow for easy ascent and descent, and for studies to be conducted on the surface. It would also take advantage of developments made in commercial UAVs and drones in recent years.

Artist’s concept of the Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) flying above one of Titan’s methane lake. Credit: NASA

This mission concept would consist of two components. On the one hand, there’s the rotorcraft – known as a Titan Aerial Daughtercraft (TAD) – which would rely on a rechargeable battery system to power itself while conducting short-duration flights (about an hour at a time). The second component is the “Mothercraft”, which would take the form of a lander or balloon, which the TAD would return to between flights to recharge from an onboard RPS.

Currently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is developing a similar concept, known as the Mars Helicopter “Scout”, for use on Mars – which is expected to be launched aboard the Mars 2020 mission. In this case, the design calls for two coaxial counter-rotating rotors, which would provide the best thrust-to-weight ratio in Mars’ thin atmosphere.

Another rotorcraft concept is being pursued by Elizabeth Turtle and colleagues from John Hopkins APL and the University of Idaho (including James Barnes). With support from NASA and members of Goddard Space Flight Center, Pennsylvania State University, and Honeybee Robotics, they have proposed a concept known as the “Dragonfly“.

Their aerial vehicle would rely on four-rotors to take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity. Its design would also allow it to easily obtain samples and determine the composition of the surface in multiple geological settings.  These findings will be presented at the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – which will be taking place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodlands, Texas.

Artist’s concept of the Titan Aerial Daughter quadcopter and its “Mothercraft” balloon. Credit: NASA/STMD

While the exploration of Titan is likely to take a back seat to the exploration of Europa in the coming decades, it is anticipated that a mission will be mounted before the mid-point of this century. Not only are the scientific goals very much the same in both cases – a chance to explore a unique environment and search for life beyond Earth – but the benefits will be comparable as well.

With every potentially life-bearing body we explore, we stand to learn more about how life began in our Solar System. And even if we do not find any life in the process, we stand to learn a great deal about the history and formation of the Solar System. On top of that, we will be one step closer to understanding humanity’s place in the Universe.

Further Reading: USRA

Exploring Titan with Balloons and Landers

Last week – from Monday, February 27th to Wednesday, March 1st – NASA hosted the “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop” at their headquarters in Washington, DC. In the course of the many presentations, speeches and panel discussions, NASA’s shared its many plans for the future of space exploration with the international community.

Among the more ambitious of these was a proposal to explore Titan using an aerial explorer and a lander. Building upon the success of the ESA’s Cassini-Huygen mission, this plan would involve a balloon that would explore Titan’s surface from low altitude, along with a Mars Pathfinder-style mission that would explore the surface.

Ultimately, the goal a mission to Titan would be to explore the rich organic chemical environment the moon has, which presents a unique opportunity for planetary researchers. For some time, scientists have understood that Titan’s surface and atmosphere have an abundance of organic compounds and all the prebiotic chemistry necessary for life to function.

Artist depiction of Huygens landing on Titan. Credit: ESA

The presentation, which was titled “Aerial Mobility : The Key to Exploring Titan’s Rich Chemical Diversity” was chaired by Ralph Lorenz from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, and co-chaired by Elizabeth Turtle (also from John Hopkins APL) and Jason Barnes from the Dept. of Physics at the University of Idaho. As Turtle explained to Universe Today via email, Titan presents some exciting opportunities for a next-generation mission:

“Titan’s of particular interest because the abundant and complex organic chemistry can teach us about chemical interactions that could have occurred here on Earth (and elsewhere?) leading to the development of life.  Furthermore, not only does Titan have an interior liquid-water ocean, but there will also have been opportunities for  organic material to have mixed with liquid water at Titan’s surface, for example impact craters and possibly cryovolcanic eruptions.  The combination of organic material with liquid water, of course, increases astrobiological potential.”

For this reason, the exploration of Titan has been a scientific goal for decades. The only question is how best to go about exploring Titan’s unique environment. During previous Decadal Surveys – such as the Campaign Strategy Working Group (CSWG) on Prebiotic Chemistry in the Outer Solar System, of which Lorenz was a contributor – has suggested that a mobile aerial vehicle (such as an airship or a balloon) would well-suited to the task.

However, such vehicles would be unable to study Titan’s methane lakes, which are one of the most exciting draws of the moon as far as research into prebiotic chemistry goes. What’s more, an aerial vehicle would not be able to conduct in-situ chemical analysis of the surface, much like what the Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit, Opportunity and Curiosity) have been doing on Mars – and with immense results!

The ESA’s TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer) on the left, and NASA’s Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) on the right. Credit: bisbos.com

At the same time, Lorenz and his colleagues examined concepts for the exploration of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas – like the proposed Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) capsule. As one of several finalists of NASA’s 2010 Discovery competition, this concept called for the deployment of nautical robot to Titan in the coming decades, where it would study its methane lakes to learn more about the methane cycle and search for signs of organic life.

While such a proposal would be cost-effective and presents some very exciting opportunities for research, it also has some limitations. For instance, during the 2020s-2030s, Titan’s northern hemisphere will be experiencing its winter season; at which point the thickness of its atmosphere will make direct-to-Earth communications and Earth views impossible. On top of that, a nautical vehicle would preclude the exploration of Titan’s land surfaces.

These offer some of the most likely prospects for studying Titan’s advanced chemical evolution, including Titan’s dune sands. As a windswept region, this area likely has material deposited from all over Titan and may also contain aqueously altered materials. Much as the Mars Pathfinder landing site was selected so it could collect samples from a wide area, such as location would be an ideal site for a lander.

As such, Lorenz and his colleagues advocated the type of mission that was articulated in the 2007 Flagship Study, which called for a Montgolfière balloon for regional exploration and a Pathfinder-like lander. This would provide the opportunity to conduct surface imaging at resolutions that are impossible from orbit (due to the thick atmosphere) as well as investigating the surface chemistry and interior structure of the moon.

Artist’s conception of a possible structure for underground liquid reservoirs on Saturn moon’s Titan. Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

So while the balloon would gather high-resolution geographical data of the moon, the lander could conduct seismological surveys that would characterize the thickness of the ice above Titan’s internal water ocean. However, a lander mission would be limited in terms of range, and the surface of Titan presents problems for mobility. This would make multiple landers, or a relocatable lander, the most desired option.

“Potential targets include areas where we can measure solid surface materials, the composition of which is still not well known, Titan’s dune sands, for example,” said Turtle. “Detailed in situ analysis is required to determine their composition.  The lakes and seas are also intriguing; however, in the nearer term (missions arriving in the 2030s) most of those will be in winter darkness.  So, exploring them would likely have to wait until the 2040s.”

This mission concept would also take advantage of several technological advances that have been made in recent years. As Lorenz explained in the course of the presentation:

“Heavier-than-air mobility at Titan is in fact highly efficient, moreover, improvements in autonomous aircraft in the two decades since the CSWG make such exploration a realistic prospect. Multiple in-situ landers delivered by an aerial vehicle like an airplane or a lander with aerial mobility to access multiple sites, would provide the most desirable scientific capability, highly relevant to the themes of origins, workings, and life.”

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

Lorenz, Turtle and Barnes will also be presenting these findings at the upcoming 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference – which will be taking place from March 20th to 24th in The Woodlands, Texas. There they will be joined by additional members of the Johns Hopkins APL and the University of Idaho, as well as panelists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Pennsylvania State University, and Honeybee Robotics.

However, addressing some additional challenges not raised at the 2050 Vision Workshop, they will be presenting a slight twist on their idea. Instead of a balloon and multiple landers, they will present a mission concept involving a “Dragonfly” qaudcopter. This four-rotor vehicle would be able to take advantage of Titan’s thick atmosphere and low gravity to obtain samples and determine the surface composition in multiple geological settings.

This concept also incorporates a lot of recent advances in technology, which include modern control electronics and advances in commerical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designs. On top of that, a quadcopter would do away with chemically-powered retrorockets and could power-up between flights, giving it a potentially much longer lifespan.

These and other concepts for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan are sure to gain traction in the coming years. Given the many mysteries locked away on this world – with includes abundant water ice, prebiotic chemistry, a methane cycle, and a subsurface ocean that is likely to be a prebiotic environment – it is certainly a popular target for scientific research.

Further Reading: USRA, USRA (2), USRA (3)

Even Though it’s an Alien World, Titan’s Canyons Would Look Very Familiar

Titan is tough moon to study, thanks to its incredibly thick and hazy atmosphere. But when astronomers have ben able to sneak a peak beneath its methane clouds, they have spotted some very intriguing features. And some of these, interestingly enough, are reminiscent of geographical features here on Earth. For instance, Titan is the only other body in the Solar System that is known to have a cycle where liquid is exchanged between the surface and the atmosphere.

For example, previous images provided by NASA’s Cassini mission showed indications of steep-sided canyons in the northern polar region that appeared to be filled with liquid hydrocarbons, similar to river valleys here on Earth. And thanks to new data obtained through radar altimetry, these canyons have been shown to be hundreds of meters deep, and have confirmed rivers of liquid methane flowing through them.

This evidence was presented in a new study titled “Liquid-filled canyons on Titan” – which was published in August of 2016 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Using data obtained by the Cassini radar altimeter in May 2013, they observed channels in the feature known as Vid Flumina, a drainage network connected to Titan’s second largest hydrocarbon sea in the north, Ligeia Mare.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has features that resemble Earth's geology, with deep, steep-sided canyons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cassini
Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has features that resemble Earth’s geology, with deep, steep-sided canyons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cassini

Analysis of this information showed that the channels in this region are steep-sided and measure about 800 m (half a mile) wide and between 244 and 579 meters deep (800 – 1900 feet). The radar echoes also showed strong surface reflections that indicated that these channels are currently filled with liquid. The elevation of this liquid was also consistent with that of Ligeia Mare (within a maring of 0.7 m), which averages about 50 m (164 ft) deep.

This is consistent with the belief that these river channels in area drain into the Ligeia Mare, which is especially interesting since it parallels how deep-canyon river systems empty into lakes here on Earth. And it is yet another example of how the methane-based hydrological cycle on Titan drives the formation and evolution of the moon’s features, and in ways that are strikingly similar to the water cycle here on Earth.

Alex Hayes – an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell, the Director of the Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility (SPIF) and one of the authors on the paper – has conducted seversal studies of Titan’s surface and atmosphere based on radar data provided by Cassini. As he was quoted as saying in a recent article by the Cornell Chronicler:

“Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane. And yet it’s remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds. The canyons found in Titan’s north are even more surprising, as we have no idea how they formed. Their narrow width and depth imply rapid erosion, as sea levels rise and fall in the nearby sea. This brings up a host of questions, such as where did all the eroded material go?”

The northern polar area of Titan and Vid Flumina drainage basin. (left) On top of the image, the Ligeia Mare; in the lower right the North Kraken Mare; the two seas are connected each other by a labyrinth of channels. On the left, near the North pole, the Punga Mare. Red arrows indicate the position of the two flumina significant for this work. At the end of its mission (15 September 2017) the Cassini RADAR in its imaging mode (SAR+ HiSAR) will have covered a total area of 67% of the surface of Titan [Hayes, 2016]. Map credits: R. L. Kirk. (right) Highlighted in yellow are the half-power altimetric footprints within the Vid Flumina drainage basin and the Xanthus Flumen course for which specular reflections occurred. At 1400?km of spacecraft altitude, the Cassini antenna 0.35° central beam produces footprints of about 8.5?km in diameter (diameter of yellow circles). Credit: NASA/JPL
Cassini image of the northern polar area of Titan and Vid Flumina drainage basin, showing Ligeia Mare (left) and the Vid Flumina drainage basin (right). Credit: R.L. Kirk/NASA/JPL
A good question indeed, since it raises some interesting possibilities. Essentially, the features observed by Cassini are just part of Titan’s northern polar region, which is covered by large standing bodies of liquid methane – the largest of these being Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare and Punga Mare. In this respect, the region is similar to glacially eroded fjords on Earth.

However, conditions on Titan do not allow for the presence of glaciers, which rules out the likelihood that retreating sheets of ice could have carved these canyons. So this naturally begs the question, what geological forces created this region? The team concluded that there were only two likely possibilities – which included changes in the elevation of the rivers, or tectonic activity in the area.

Ultimately, they favored a model where the variation in surface elevation of liquid drove the formation of the canyons – though they acknowledge that both tectonic forces and sea level variations played a role. As Valerio Poggiali, an associate member of the Cassini RADAR Science Team at the Sapienza University of Rome and the lead author of the paper, told Universe Today via email:

“What the canyons on Titan really mean is that in the past sea level was lower and so erosion and canyon formation could take place. Subsequently sea level has risen and backfilled the canyons. This presumably takes place over multiple cycles, eroding when sea level is lower, depositing some when it is higher until we get the canyons we see today. So, what it means is that sea level has likely changed in the geological past and the canyons are recording that change for us.”

Titan's Ligeia Mare. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Titan’s second largest methane lake, Ligeia Mare. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

In this respect, there are many more Earth examples to choose from, all of which are mentioned in the study:

“Examples include Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River that was created by the Glen Canyon Dam; the Georges River in New South Wales, Australia; and the Nile River gorge, which formed as the Mediterranean Sea dried up during the late Miocene. Rising liquid levels in the geologically recent past led to the flooding of these valleys, with morphologies similar to those observed at Vid Flumina.”

Understanding the processes that led to these formations is crucial to understanding the current state of Titan’s geomorphology. And this study is significant in that it is the first to conclude that the rivers in the Vid Flumina region were deep canyons. In the future, the research team hopes to examine other channels on Titan that were observed by Cassini to test their theories.

Once again, our exploration of the Solar System has shown us just how weird and wonderful it truly is. In addition to all its celestial bodies having their own particular quirks, they still have a lot in common with Earth. By the time the Cassini mission is complete (Sept. 15th, 2017), it will have surveyed 67% the surface of Titan with its RADAR imaging instrument. Who knows what other “Earth-like” features it will notice before then?

Further Reading: Geophysical Research Letters

Life On Titan Possible Without Water

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a truly fascinating place. Aside from Earth, it is the only place in the Solar System where rainfall occurs and there are active exchanges between liquids on the surface and fog in the atmosphere – albeit with methane instead of water. It’s atmospheric pressure is also comparable to Earth’s, and it is the only other body in the Solar System that has a dense atmosphere that is nitrogen-rich.

For some time, astronomers and planetary scientists have speculated that Titan might also have the prebiotic conditions necessary for life. Others, meanwhile, have argued that the absence of water on the surface rules out the possibility of life existing there. But according to a recent study  produced by a research team from Cornell University, the conditions on Titan’s surface might support the formation of life without the need for water.

When it comes to searching for life beyond Earth, scientists focus on targets that possess the necessary ingredients for life as we know it – i.e. heat, a viable atmosphere, and water. This is essentially the “low-hanging fruit” approach, where we search for conditions resembling those here on Earth. Titan – which is very cold, quite distant from our Sun, and has a thick, hazy atmosphere – does not seem like a viable candidate, given these criteria.

Diagram 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

However, according to the Cornell research team – which is led by Dr. Martin Rahm – Titan presents an opportunity to see how life could emerge under different conditions, one which are much colder than Earth and don’t involve water.

Their study – titled “Polymorphism and electronic structure of polyimine and its potential significance for prebiotic chemistry on Titan” – appeared recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, Rahm and his colleagues examined the role that hydrogen cyanide, which is believed to be central to the origin of life question, may play in Titan’s atmosphere.

Previous experiments have shown that hydrogen cyanide (HCN) molecules can link together to form polyimine, a polymer that can serve as a precursor to amino acids and nucleic acids (the basis for protein cells and DNA). Previous surveys have also shown that hydrogen cyanide is the most abundant hydrogen-containing molecule in Titan’s atmosphere.

As Professor Lunine – the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences and Director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and co-author of the study – told Universe Today via email: “Organic molecules, liquid lakes and seas (but of methane, not water) and some amount of solar energy reaches the surface. So this suggests the possibility of an environment that might host an exotic form of life.”

What other surprises may be found beneath Titan's thick haze and clouds? (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)
Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere may conceal clues as to the possibility of life-giving conditions on its surface. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major

Using quantum mechanical calculations, the Cornell team showed that polyimine has electronic and structural properties that could facilitate prebiotic chemistry under very cold conditions. These involve the ability to absorb a wide spectrum of light, which is predicted to occur in a window of relative transparency in Titan’s atmosphere.

Another is the fact that polyimine has a flexible backbone, and can therefore take on many different structures (aka. polymorphs). These range from flat sheets to complex coiled structures, which are relatively close in energy. Some of these structures, according to the team, could work to accelerate prebiotic chemical reactions, or even form structures that could act as hosts for them.

“Polyimine can form sheets,” said Lunine, “which like clays might serve as a catalytic surface for prebiotic reactions. We also find the polyimine absorbs sunlight where Titan’s atmosphere is quite transparent, which might help to energize reactions.”

In short, the presence of polyimine could mean that Titan’s surface gets the energy its needs to drive photochemical reactions necessary for the creation of organic life, and that it could even assist in the development of that life. But of course, no evidence has been found that polyimine has been produced on the surface of Titan, which means that these research findings are still academic at this point.

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
Proposed missions to Titan have included (from left to right) the TALISE (Titan Lake In-situ Sampling Propelled Explorer) and NASA’s Titan Mare Explorer. Credit: bisbos.com

However, Lunine and his team indicate that hydrogen cyanide may very well have lead to the creation of polyimine on Titan, and that it might have simply escaped detection because of Titan’s murky atmosphere. They also added that future missions to Titan might be able to look for signs of the polymer, as part of ongoing research into the possibility of exotic life emerging in other parts of the Solar System.

“We would need an advanced payload on the surface to sample and search for polyimines,” answered Lunine, “or possibly by a next generation spectrometer from orbit. Both of these are “beyond Cassini”, that is, the next generation of missions.”

Perhaps when Juno is finished surveying Jupiter’s atmosphere in two years time, NASA might consider retasking it for a flyby of Titan? After all, Juno was specifically designed to peer beneath a veil of thick clouds. They don’t come much thicker than on Titan!

Further Reading: PNAS

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?”