Huygens finds a hostile world on Titan

Dec 08, 2005
Panorama of Titan from a height of eight kilometres.

Conditions on Saturn's moon Titan, with its dense atmosphere, are similar to those on Earth early in our solar system. Pictures and spectral analysis of Titan's surface, recorded by an international scientific team including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS), show a dried-out "river" landscape. Evaluating the data has now shown that methane on Titan exists in solid, liquid, and gas states, and plays a similar role in Titan's atmosphere and on its surface that water plays on Earth. Water ice on Titan congeals to be similar to stone on Earth: it makes up a major component of the Titan's surface. "Stones" made presumably largely of water ice show signs of erosion and transport through a liquid.

Image: Panorama of Titan from a height of eight kilometres. The circle shows the region where the space probe "Huygens" landed. The coloured area shows what Titan would look like to an observer standing on its surface. The orange colour comes from the absorption of the short-wave blue and green sunlight in Titan's atmosphere. Image: MPS/ University of Arizona/ESA/NASA

With a diameter of about 5,150 kilometres, Titan is the largest moon of Saturn. It has a dense atmosphere which we mostly cannot see through. Until recently, Titan was one of the few objects in the solar system whose surface was not researched. In 1997, the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn was launched. The NASA spaceship Cassini reached Saturn's orbit in 2004 and since then has been investigating the ringed planet and its moons. The Huygens probe of the European Space Agency ESA separated from Cassini at the end of 2004 and landed on Titan on January 14, 2005, after a two-and-a-half hour descent through the atmosphere.

Among the scientific instruments aboard Huygens were the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR), plus a combination of 14 cameras, spectrometers for visible and infrared light, and photometers. The Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research developed the CCD detector, which received the signal from all the cameras and spectrometers in the visible wavelengths.

During descent, as well as after Huygens landed, the DISR investigated the atmosphere and surface of Titan. At first sight, it is similar to a landscape on Earth. We can see the courses of rivers, which lead from a higher-lying area to a lower, flat terrain, bordered by a kind of coastline (see image 1). Spectral analysis showed indeed that materials from the higher areas were transported down to a "sea".

Huygens landed in the low-lying, flat area. The pictures taken after landing (see image 2) show that there is currently no liquid in the "sea". There are, however, "stones", whose rounded shape, and size distribution, suggest they were transported in a liquid. Given the extremely low temperatures on Titan -- about 180 degrees below Celsius -- the liquid could not be water. The scientists guess rather that it is methane and/or another hydrocarbon, and that the "stones" are made of water ice.

Investigations of the atmosphere on Titan concentrated on its dust layer. Before landing, it was assumed that the dust is only located above 50 kilometres up in the atmosphere, and the area lying underneath it is clear. The DISR measurements have now shown that the dust layer reaches down to the surface. Spectral analysis shows that the dust particles are aggregates of some hundreds of very small particles, about 50 nanometers across.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Explore further: Spitzer telescope witnesses asteroid smashup

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

How Titan's haze help us understand life's origins

Aug 25, 2014

Where did life on Earth come from? There are several theories as to what might have happened. Maybe comets came bearing organic material, or life was transported from another planet such as Mars, or something ...

Titan offers clues to atmospheres of hazy planets

Jul 28, 2014

When hazy planets pass across the face of their star, a curious thing happens. Astronomers are not able to see any changes in the range of light coming from the star and planet system.

MIPT-based researcher models Titan's atmosphere

Jul 24, 2014

A researcher from Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Prof. Vladimir Krasnopolsky, who heads the Laboratory of High Resolution Infrared Spectroscopy of Planetary Atmospheres, has published the results of the comparison ...

When life went global

Jul 07, 2014

"An origin of life is not the same as an origin of a biosphere—that's an important distinction," says David Grinspoon, a planetary scientist and curator of astrobiology for the Denver Museum of Nature & ...

Recommended for you

Spitzer telescope witnesses asteroid smashup

7 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has spotted an eruption of dust around a young star, possibly the result of a smashup between large asteroids. This type of collision can eventually lead to the ...

Informing NASA's Asteroid Initiative: A citizen forum

8 hours ago

In its history, the Earth has been repeatedly struck by asteroids, large chunks of rock from space that can cause considerable damage in a collision. Can we—or should we—try to protect Earth from potentially ...

Image: Rosetta's comet looms

14 hours ago

Wow! Rosetta is getting ever-closer to its target comet by the day. This navigation camera shot from Aug. 23 shows that the spacecraft is so close to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko that it's difficult to ...

User comments : 0