Smooth sailing ahead – on Titan

Artist's conception of the TiME probe floating in the Ligeia Mare sea on Titan. Credit: JHU APL / Lockheed Martin

What would it be like to go sailing on one of Titan’s lakes or seas? Apart from the fact that they are composed of liquid methane/ethane instead of water in the much colder environment, they share a lot of physical similarities to their earthly counterparts. Radar images taken by the Cassini orbiter (to see through the thick, perpetually hazy atmosphere) show that they look just like lakes and seas on Earth, although they are concentrated near the moon’s poles, the north pole in particular.

If you were able to go out in a boat, it would also be a similar experience to sailing on Earth, other than the intense cold and smoggy-looking orangish sky overhead. It might also be safer though, in terms of “rough waters” – the lakes and seas on Titan have so far been found to be smoother than those on Earth, with much less wave activity, according to a new study to be published in Icarus.

With typically weak surface winds on Titan, it was determined that waves on Ligeia Mare, a large sea about 400 kilometres (250 miles) wide, wouldn’t reach any more than about a foot high under normal conditions. According to Ralph Lorenz at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, “You’d notice 0.2-meter waves if you were in a rowboat, but they wouldn’t get surfers excited.”

As it turns out, we may not have to wait too long to go sailing there – a new mission, the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), is being planned for a possible landing in Ligeia Mare in 2023. The robotic probe would drift around while taking measurement and photographs of this Titanian sea. The previous, and only probe to land on Titan so far was Huygens, which touched down in a desert region near the equator in 2005.

TiME is one of three Discovery missions being considered by NASA, with final selection scheduled for later this year. The other two are Comet Hopper, which would land on a comet multiple times and InSight, which would study the interior of Mars. Both are interesting in themselves, but if I had to choose, I’d rather go sailing on Titan; I mean how often do you get a chance to explore an alien sea?

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