Titan: Where methane flows like water! - MyMoon

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Our Moon isn’t the only interesting natural satellite in our solar system. It turns out that there are a large number of fascinating and unique moons in orbit around the different planets in the solar system. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is one of the most interesting and mysterious.

Titan possesses a very dense atmosphere, consisting mostly of nitrogen, with a little bit of methane and hydrogen. That alone makes it an interesting place to study: in fact, it is the only nitrogen-rich atmosphere other than the Earth’s in the solar system. It’s not only the atmosphere that makes a parallel with the Earth; the methane on Titan is believed to undergo a “methane cycle” very similar to the “water cycle” on Earth (a great, more detailed, overview of the methane cycle on Titan is available here). Methane clouds form in the atmosphere, and cause methane rain on to the surface of methane. The temperatures on Titan’s surface are low enough (around 93 K or –290 °F) that the methane can flow as a liquid. So just as water travels through a cycle from the surface to the atmosphere on the Earth, methane on Titan follows a similar path.

The astounding part of all this is that scientists have only been able to piece together this narrative about Titan only recently and with very few pieces of information. The same atmosphere that is so interesting also makes it difficult to see what’s actually happening on Titan. The cloud cover is thick and opaque, blocking visible light from reaching the surface of the moon and not allowing us to easily see the surface. Most of what we currently know about Titan, and much of what we can learn in the future, relies on spacecrafts.

Recently, with the help of the Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens probe, planetary scientists have been able to tease out more information about what exists on Titan’s surface. Images, like the one below, taken from Cassini’s radar have shown seas on the surface of Titan, made up of Methane. The land shows up as yellow and the large bodies of liquid methane show up as dark areas in the images. And the Huygens probe, during its mission lifetime of just a few hours, gave a treasure trove of data, even revealing the presence of methane rivers on Titan! Possible future missions (like the TiME lander, which unfortunately did not get funded) may even place probes that are designed to sail and explore on the methane seas of Titan! It is certainly the beginning of a very exciting time for learning about Titan.

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We’re only beginning to scratch the surface (almost literally) for Titan. Titan still holds many secrets, and presents us with a bizarre analog of the Earth. It is the only moon with a fully developed atmosphere in our solar, and it possesses the closest thing to a water cycle that we know of in the entire universe. As we discover planets orbiting other stars in the universe, it is also fascinating to study a Moon in our own solar system that is trying to behave so much like a planet.


Nick A.

Wednesday Jun-05-2013

Sending a sailboat to Titan's methane seas is one of my favorite ideas of all time.

Just the idea of sailing around on the waters of another planet...or in this case, the methanes.

It'd be awesome to have a full globe/map of Titan and it's rivers and seas!

They say it's very much like an early Earth.../goosebumps! Titan is amazing.

Demarcus B.

Sunday Jun-16-2013

Sending a probe to sail on Titan sounds just as exciting as the idea to send balloons to float in the clouds on Venus.

Dennis M J M.

Wednesday Jun-26-2013

I always think its interesting to imagine about, say, a distant planet near where venus or mercury are here, say, that is mostly molten gold, or another world where the ground is like a comfy warm sponge ... all these neat combinations of elements, gravitics, photons, life-forms, etc that we can barely imagine right now. A planet where humans seem to have extraordinary strength like superman-kinda because of the electric fields or gravity or spin or whatever.... infinity is truly an amazing thing ;)

The treasures in our own system are not to be discounted, I think its highly possible that life could exist in liquid environment other than H2O, we've found things here that live in low light at extreme pressure, etc - so why not ?

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