A very alien moon: NASA celebrates 12th anniversary of Huygens landing on Titan

Mosaic of images taken by Huygens during its descent to the surface of Titan, from an altitude of about 6 miles (10 kilometers). Riverbeds formed by liquid methane can be seen near the center of the image. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twelve years ago today, one of the most incredible space missions ever was accomplished: the first landing of a probe on an alien moon. And this wasn’t just any moon, but Titan, largest moon of Saturn and one of the most fascinating worlds in the Solar System. Although much colder than Earth, Titan mimics some of the processes found here such as its hydrological cycle, but with liquid methane/ethane instead of water. Titan had been observed extensively by telescopes and from Saturnian orbit, but this was the first time the surface could be seen up close.

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Cassini sends back spectacular new images from first Ring-Grazing Orbit at Saturn

Saturn’s northern hemisphere up close: new image taken by Cassini on Dec. 3, 2016, showing small details in the turbulent atmosphere, including one corner of the “hexagon” with central cyclone. It was taken at a distance of about 240,000 miles (390,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s northern hemisphere up close: new image taken by Cassini on Dec. 3, 2016, showing small details in the turbulent atmosphere, including one corner of the “hexagon” with central cyclone. It was taken at a distance of about 390,000 kilometres (240,000 miles) from Saturn. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its first close pass of Saturn’s ring system, part of the Ring-Grazing Orbits phase of its mission, NASA said yesterday. As might be expected, Cassini has sent back some spectacular new images; these first images show Saturn’s northern hemisphere in incredible detail, including the famous “hexagon” jet stream surrounding the north pole.

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Gateway to the Ring-Grazing Orbits: Cassini conducts new flybys of Titan and Enceladus

Cassini conducted its next-to-last flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan yesterday, in preparation of the Ring-Grazing Orbits has of its mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cassini conducted its next-to-last flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan yesterday, in preparation of the Ring-Grazing Orbits has of its mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As reported earlier this week, the Cassini spacecraft is now preparing to make a series of very close passes by the edges of Saturn’s rings, known as Ring-Grazing Orbits. A couple days ago, Cassini conducted a close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan; this is the second-to-last ever flyby of Titan before Cassini enters the Grand Finale phase of its mission, culminating in a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. During this flyby, Cassini focused on mapping the surface and surface temperatures and used Titan’s gravity to help place the spacecraft into the Ring-Grazing Orbits.

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Cassini data may help locate ‘Planet Nine’ and reveals methane fog on Titan

Artist’s conception of the possible Planet Nine, orbiting much farther from the Sun than even Pluto. The Cassini spacecraft may be able to help find it. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Artist’s conception of the possible Planet Nine, orbiting much farther from the Sun than even Pluto. The Cassini spacecraft may be able to help find it. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for many years now, studying the massive planet and its moons in unprecedented detail. Now, Cassini might be able to help shed light on another Solar System mystery: the possible existence of a ninth planet in the outer Solar System far past Pluto, or “Planet Nine” as it has been dubbed. There is also a new report, based on old data, that the Huygens lander observed methane ground fog as it descended to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.

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Sinkholes on Titan: new study shows how hydrocarbon lakes may form by Earth-like erosion

Coloured mosaic of lakes near Titan’s north pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS
Coloured mosaic of lakes near Titan’s north pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has seas and lakes of liquid methane and ethane dotting its surface, but one question scientists have been trying to figure out is how the hollows in the ground, which hold the lakes, form to begin with. Now, a new study offers a solution: The depressions in the surface are formed in a process similar to sinkholes on Earth.

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‘Ocean Worlds Exploration Program’: new budget proposal calls for missions to Europa, Enceladus and Titan

Artist’s conception of Europa’s interior, with water rising through cracks in the surface, depositing salts similar to sea salt on Earth. The ocean below may be a habitable environment for some kind of life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s conception of Europa’s interior, with water rising through cracks in the surface, depositing salts similar to sea salt on Earth. The ocean below may be a habitable environment for some kind of life. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The exploration of the outer Solar System has revealed a plethora of amazing worlds, the likes of which were little known or even unheard of just a decade ago. Among the most remarkable and tantalizing discoveries are the “ocean moons” such as Europa and Enceladus, which have oceans or seas of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Other moons like Titan, Ganymede, and Callisto may also have them, and even some asteroids. Titan also has seas and lakes of liquid methane/ethane on its surface. With all that water, these small worlds have become a primary focus in the search for possible life elsewhere in the Solar System. Now, a new NASA budget proposal wants to take that a step further and fund new missions to these watery moons.

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‘Life not as we know it’: new research shows how exotic biology may be possible on Titan

Illustration of methane rainfall and lake on Titan. New research suggests exotic forms of life could be possible in this alien environment. Image Credit: Mark Garlick (Space-art.co.uk)/APOD
Illustration of methane rainfall and lake on Titan. New research suggests exotic forms of life could be possible in this alien environment. Image Credit: Mark Garlick (Space-art.co.uk)/APOD

The search for life elsewhere has long focused on what we are most familiar with on Earth – in other words, “life as we know it,” or organisms which are carbon-based and require water to survive. However, a growing number of scientists are now thinking that alternative forms of life are possible, ones which have never been seen on Earth, but could flourish in other types of alien environments. A new study from Cornell University addresses this very question, demonstrating a form of microscopic life which would be possible on Saturn’s largest moon Titan.

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Exploring an alien sea: NASA designs submarine to send to Titan

Artist’s conception of the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design. Much like submarines on Earth, the sub would explore the depths of one of Titan’s methane/ethane seas. Image Credit: NASA
Artist’s conception of the Titan Submarine Phase I Conceptual Design. Much like submarines on Earth, the sub would explore the depths of one of Titan’s methane/ethane seas. Image Credit: NASA

Who wouldn’t want to go explore an alien sea? It seems that NASA would certainly like to, and the agency has unveiled a new submarine design to hopefully do just that one day. The submarine would be sent to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to dive into one of the large liquid methane seas on the moon’s frigid surface; such a mission idea may sound like science fiction, but it’s not, and would be the first ever to explore a sea on another world which is both Earth-like in some ways, yet utterly alien in others.

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New technique provides better, clearer radar images of Titan’s amazing surface

Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI
Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a fascinating world, uniquely alien yet eerily Earth-like in many ways, with its rain, rivers, lakes, seas, and massive sand dunes. But in this extremely cold environment, it is liquid methane and ethane which act as “water,” mimicking the hydrological cycle on Earth. Also, due to the perpetual and global hazy cloud cover, the only way to see these features from orbit is by using radar, which is what the Cassini spacecraft has done on a regular basis for quite a few years now. As good as they are, though, the radar images contain electronic noise, which reduces sharpness and clarity. But now a new technique is letting planetary scientists see Titan’s surface more clearly than ever before.

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