NASA has revealed a rather awesome look at Saturn’s moon Titan, one of the most Earth-like places in the Solar System.
In the image, which was snapped by the Cassini spacecraft back on March 31, 2005, the individual layers of haze in the upper atmosphere of Titan can clearly be seen. The atmosphere of Titan is rich in methane and nitrogen, creating a smog that surrounds the moon. We've seen the image before, but NASA brought it back to our attention yesterday.
The image was taken from a distance of 33,083 kilometers (20,556 miles) from the moon, looking towards its north polar region on its nightside. Part of the crescent of the sunlit side of Titan is seen to the right of the image.
Titan is the only place other than Earth known to have bodies of liquid on its surface. On Titan, these are in the form of liquid hydrocarbons, methane and ethane, rather than water on our planet.
As a result, it has a methane cycle (compared to our water cycle). Recently, we discovered that it rains on Titan more than we thought, with intense rainstorms occurring less than once per Titan year (slightly more than 29 Earth years).
Titan’s atmosphere, slightly thicker than Earth’s and composed of 98.4 percent nitrogen, allows these liquids to remain on the surface. Thanks to the Cassini spacecraft, we were able to see these liquids on the surface by bouncing radio waves off them through the atmosphere.
The Cassini mission came to an end in September 2017, when it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn. But thanks to the spacecraft, we’ve learned more about Titan than ever before – and it even dropped a lander, Huygens, on the surface in January 2005.
More than anything though, this mission shows us how awesome Titan is, with an atmosphere that looks weirdly Earth-like. This, more than anything, makes it an enticing target for future exploration.
NASA is actually considering sending a mission back to Titan in the 2020s, a drone that would fly through the moon’s skies and return fascinating data on its lakes and seas. Perhaps a mission like this will tell us even more about this world that, at times, seems almost like home.