'Possibility of life': scientists map Saturn's exotic moon Titan

Katie Ramirez
November 22, 2019

The chart reveals its features an Earth-like landscape, including mountains, lakes, valleys and "labyrinth terrains".

Cassini spacecraft catches a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off the hydrocarbon seas of Saturn's large moon Titan.

NASA planetary geologist Rosaly Lopes is lead author of new research used to develop the map, published Monday (November 18, 2019) in the journal Nature Astronomy.

The map reveals different geologic terrains have a clear distribution with latitude, globally, while some terrains cover far more area than others. Cassini's visible and infrared instruments were also used for mapping in cases where they "saw" large geological features of Titan amid the haze.

Dr Lopes added: "This study is an example of using combined datasets and instruments". Although we did not have global coverage with synthetic aperture radar [SAR], we used data from other instruments and other modes from radar to correlate characteristics of the different terrain units so we could infer what the terrains are even in areas where we don't have SAR coverage.

If there comes a day when humans aren't fit to live on Earth anymore, or the possibility of touring the solar system opens up, here's hoping the wonderfully weird world that is Titan, is in the mix.

While water rains down from clouds and fills the Earth's rivers, lakes, and oceans, things work a little differently on Titan, where large clouds spew hydrocarbons (like methane and ethane, which are gases here on Earth) - in liquid form.

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Specifically, the map reveals that the moon's surface is two-thirds flat plains, 17 percent sand dunes, 14 percent hills or mountains, and 1.5 percent valleys. Many researchers today think these organics evolved in the liquid water ocean below Titan's icy crust.

Fortunately, the Cassini spacecraft - a collaborative mission between the American, European and Italian space agencies to study Titan - has been stalking Saturn (and Titan, too) successfully since October 1997.

The map was created seven years before the USA space agency is set to launch its Dragonfly mission to dispatch a multi-rotor drone to study Titan's chemistry and suitability for life.

It will be a while before NASA is able to study Titan up close again: NASA's next drone mission to the body is set for 2034. But instead of water, the pools mottling the moon's surface consist of liquid methane.

"It is not only scientifically important but also really cool - a drone flying around on Titan", Lopes said.

In 2010 it began its second mission (Cassini Solstice Mission) which lasted until it exploded in Saturn's atmosphere. This makes it unlike anywhere else in the solar system, except Earth.

Titan's diversity and similarities to Earth make the moon a place to find microbial life.

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