Titan is one of the most Earth-like places in the Solar System. So this latest discovery of new clouds in this moon of Saturn’s atmosphere is sure to please astronomers.
In a series of images published on the raw image Cassini data site, the spacecraft has snapped a number of images showing clouds drifting across the moon.
They were taken towards the end of last week as Cassini made its sweeping orbit around Saturn. The spacecraft is currently performing a number of daring dives between Saturn and its rings as it nears its mission end in September, using Titan as a gravitational anchor to do so.
It’s not just clouds that are visible in the images, though. Sand dunes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons can also be seen. Titan is the only place other than Earth known to have bodies of liquid on its surface.
But it’s the clouds that are arguably most exciting this time around. “I would say the scientists on the camera team are hoping for clouds,” Trina Ray, a member of NASA’s Cassini team, told IFLScience back in April.
Why? Well, although Titan has an extremely thick atmosphere, its clouds are few and far between. Thus, scientists are keen to see more of them and study them in more detail, to better understand some of the processes taking place on this moon.
On Earth, our clouds are the result of our water cycle, with water evaporating, condensing, and then precipitating. On Titan the same thing seems to occur, but with methane. Yes, in some locations it rains methane – although only once every 1,000 years.
We’ve got a long list of other unanswered questions about Titan, too. On that last flyby we mentioned earlier, scientists hoped to measure the depth of some of the lakes and seas around its north pole. We can expect results from those efforts at some point in the future.
Some of these bodies of liquid also have mysterious “magic islands”, bright regions that appear in some images but disappear in others. The cause of these could be literal pieces of land sinking and rising, bubbling liquid, or something else entirely.
While there are no more close flybys of Titan planned – by Cassini or any spacecraft in the foreseeable future – there's plenty of reason to go back there at some point, as evidenced by these latest photos.