A focus on Titan.
Titan (or Saturn VI) is the largest moon of Saturn. It is the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere, and the only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found.
Titan is the sixth ellipsoidal moon from Saturn. Frequently described as a planet-like moon, Titan has a diameter 50% larger than the Moon and is 80% more massive. It is the second-largest moon in the Solar System, after Jupiter’s moon Ganymede, and is larger by volume than the smallest planet, Mercury, although only 40% as massive.
Titan is primarily composed of water ice and rocky material. Much as with Venus prior to the Space Age, the dense, opaque atmosphere prevented understanding of Titan’s surface until new information accumulated with the arrival of the Cassini–Huygens mission in 2004, including the discovery of liquid hydrocarbon lakes in Titan’s polar regions. The geologically young surface is generally smooth, with few known impact craters, although mountains and several possible cryovolcanoes have been found.
The atmosphere of Titan is largely composed of nitrogen; minor components lead to the formation of methane and ethane clouds and nitrogen-rich organic smog. The climate—including wind and rain—creates surface features similar to those of Earth, such as dunes, rivers, lakes, seas (probably of liquid methane and ethane), and deltas, and is dominated by seasonal weather patterns as on Earth. With its liquids (both surface and subsurface) and robust nitrogen atmosphere, Titan’s methane cycle is viewed as an analogy to Earth’s water cycle, although at a much lower temperature.
Titan’s surface temperature is about 94 K (−179.2 °C). At this temperature water ice has an extremely low vapor pressure, so the little water vapor present appears limited to the stratosphere. Titan receives about 1% of the amount of sunlight that Earth gets.
Atmospheric methane creates a greenhouse effect on Titan’s surface, without which Titan would be far colder. 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 warming and making its surface significantly colder than its upper atmosphere.
Titan’s clouds, probably composed of methane, ethane or other simple organics, are scattered and variable, punctuating the overall haze. The findings of the Huygens probe indicate that Titan’s atmosphere periodically rains liquid methane and other organic compounds onto its surface.
It was summer in Titan’s southern hemisphere until 2010, when Saturn’s orbit, which governs Titan’s motion, moved Titan’s northern hemisphere into the sunlight. When the seasons switch, it is expected that ethane will begin to condense over the south pole.
Titan’s surface is marked by broad regions of bright and dark terrain. These include Xanadu, a large, reflective equatorial area about the size of Australia. It was first identified in infrared images from the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994, and later viewed by the Cassini spacecraft. The convoluted region is filled with hills and cut by valleys and chasms. It is criss-crossed in places by dark lineaments—sinuous topographical features resembling ridges or crevices. These may represent tectonic activity, which would indicate that Xanadu is geologically young. Alternatively, the lineaments may be liquid-formed channels, suggesting old terrain that has been cut through by stream systems.
After years of searching, planetary scientists think they may finally have spotted waves rippling on the seas of Titan.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft spied several unusual glints of sunlight off the surface of Punga Mare, one of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas, in 2012 and 2013. Those reflections may come from tiny ripples, no more than 2 centimetres high, that are disturbing the otherwise flat ocean.
Picture : This image shows Titan in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths, with Xanadu in the bright region at the center-right. It was taken by Cassini’s imaging science subsystem on Oct. 26, 2004. Red and green colors represent infrared wavelengths and show areas where atmospheric methane absorbs light. These colors reveal a brighter (redder) northern hemisphere. Blue represents ultraviolet wavelengths and shows the high atmosphere and detached hazes.
Credit : NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute