Thanks to NASA’s Cassini probe, we now know what the surface of Titan consists of. With a diameter of 5,150 kilometers, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and the second largest in our Solar System. It is also one of the most mysterious moons as it has a very thick layer of hazy methane clouds which, until recently, has prevented scientists from fully looking at and studying its surface.
Cassini orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017 and circled past Titan over 120 times. The probe was able to peer through the thick clouds and found that Titan’s surface is quite spectacular. The first ever geological map of the moon revealed six important features which include dunes, plains, lakes, hummocky terrain (or small mountains), craters, and labyrinth terrain. NASA’s map of Titan can be viewed here.
Across the mid-latitudes of the moon are plains which total around 65% of the area, while the dunes are located along the equator. Large methane lakes are situated at the North Pole, while the South Pole is pretty much dry. This is probably because of the moon’s climate cycles, elevation, and seasons.
David Williams, who is a planetary geologist at Arizona State University and co-author of the study (which can be read in full here), stated, “The Cassini mission revealed that Titan is a geologically active world, where hydrocarbons like methane and ethane take the role that water has on Earth.” He went on to say, “These hydrocarbons rain down on the surface, flow in streams and rivers, accumulate in lakes and seas, and evaporate into the atmosphere. It’s quite an astounding world!”
While scientists now have a map of Titan’s surface, many questions still remain, such as the possibility of the moon being able to sustain life. And if so, how was the life able to survive with replacing oxygen with methane?
NASA hopes to answer these questions as they are planning on returning to Titan for the Dragonfly Mission in the year 2034. The mission will include dropping a drone onto the surface of the moon. This will be the first time ever that NASA will send a flying vehicle to investigate a distant world as it will have the capability to take off and land on different areas of the moon. During the initial 2.7-year study, NASA hopes that the vehicle will be able to cover around 108 miles.