Saturn’s Mysterious Moon

Saturn’s largest moon (the solar system’s second largest moon), Titan, was discovered in 1655 by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. In 1944, Gerard Kuiper demonstrated that Titan’s dense atmosphere has the spectral signature of methane.  Up until the arival of the Voyager 1 in 1980 and Cassini-Huygens in 2004, Titan was somewhat of a mystery with its surface features hidden beneath thick layers of clouds and haze.

Although the surface was still hidden, Voyager was able to learn much about the moon’s planet-like atmosphere. Titan’s huge atmosphere creates a surface pressure of 1.5 bars, a temperature of 94K, and a density of 5.3kg/m3.  This surface temperature is close to the triple point of methane, which could mean that Titan has a methane cycle similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle.           

In 2005, ESA’s Huygens Probe was released from Cassini and entered Titan’s atmosphere. It discovered that Titan and Earth’s atmosphere share a similar altitude/temperature relationship.  On Earth, the temperature decreases with altitude in the troposphere, increases in the stratosphere due to the absorption of UV rays in the ozone, decreases in the mesosphere due to decreasing atmospheric density, and finally increases in the thermosphere due to the release of thermal energy caused by the break up of molecules by solar radiation.  On Titan, the temperature decreases with altitude in the troposphere, and increases in the stratosphere. 

With several Cassini flybys, Titan’s mysterious surface is finally being revealed.  Titan’s surface is incredibly Earth-like with rain-cut river beds, hydrocarbon lakes, and giant equatorial sand dunes.  Much is still unknown about the surface, such as the depth of the lakes, and how the sand dunes are formed.  Cassini Radar observations also confirmed that the entire crust of Titan is floating on top of a massive water ocean.              

With a two year extention to the Cassini mission, including 26 more Titan fly-bys, there is definitely more discoveries to come.  Titan is well worth exploring with complex orbiters and landers, not only to explore Titan’s exotic surface features but also to look for signs of extremophiles.  Any such mission is far off, so in the meantime we can enjoy the only sounds ever recorded on a body other than Earth which were recorded by the Huygens Probe as it descended through Titan’s atmosphere: Sounds of Titan

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