25 June 2014

Cassini Observes TITAN: Methane Lakes, Natural Plastic, Mysterious Radio Signals, and 'Magic Island'

TITAN: rendering of methane lake, view of host planet Saturn at night

If you haven't been following, the NASA-ESA Cassini space mission has recently passed-by the largest of Saturn's 150 moons/moonlets: Titan is a natural satellite 1.5x the size of our own moon that makes up a full 90% of the orbiting mass around the gas giant. 

And while Saturn is a large, windy gas ball, its planet-like moon Titan actually has a solid surface compromised of mostly rocks and water ice, retains an atmosphere (majority nitrogen, same as Earth yet 1.5x pressure), and features massive lakes of methane/ethane -one the size of Lake Superior- with waves/weather/lightning storms, thus spooky Earth-like landscapes such as rivers, canyons, cliffs, and deltas carved by flowing hydrocarbons.

Titan is the only celestial body in our solar system other than Earth with stable liquids on it's surface, and it's the second-largest moon orbiting any planet. Some say all the building blocks of DNA are present there as well, and data suggests subterranean lakes of water exist that do not freeze until -76C
(high content of ammonia).

Although the moon was first spotted in 1655, the surface of Titan has not actually been possible to observe from Earth, owing to the smoggy atmosphere... not until 2004 with Hubble and then better-yet the first 2005 Cassini. Now NASA has another go at it with the 'Cassini Solstice' mission.

Interestingly, Titan has some wild features, i.e. naturally occurring plastic, unusual radio signals, possible 'ice volcanos' and a bright, mysterious 'magic island' that appeared and disappeared on subsequent passes (2005/2013)
by Cassini spacecraft... click any to enlarge:

Titan in natural color: the thick, cloudy brownish-gold atmosphere 
is due to a dense organonitrogen haze that envelopes the moon. 

Panorama mosaic of Titan's surface as taken by
2005 ESA Hyugens, the only spacecraft to ever land on another planet's moon

call it Methane Bay

Titan's surface from 2005 ESA probe Huygens...
the only images 
from a planetary surface (other than Mars and Venusever taken 

An area of Titan known as Sotra Facula: scientists have named the
highest peak in this area Doom Mons, after a volcano
that appears in J.R.R. Tolkien's fiction
(via Cassini's radar surface mapping)

Northern polar region appears to have salt flats surrounding the lakes

Massive hydrocarbon lake photographed by Cassini

Statistics for Titan:

Discovered by                            -    Christiaan Huygens
Year of Discovery                       -    1655
Diameter                                      -    3,200.6 miles  
Mean Distance from Saturn         -    759,067 miles  
Rotational Period                        -    15.9 Days
Orbital Period                              -    15.9 Days
Mean Surface Temperature         -    -289 F (-178 C)
Main Atmospheric Component     -    Nitrogen (90%)
Atmospheric Pressure                  -    1.5 bar

Saturn as seen by Cassini

For comparison: our moon, Titan, and Earth

Cassini spacecraft:

Liquid methane/ethane lakes on surface of Titan as seen from Cassini in false color