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Titan’s Cold Hydrocarbon Lakes Could Be Naturally Carbonated—Er, Nitrogenated

Artist’s rendering of an ice-covered lake surface on Titan (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS)

At the north pole of Saturn’s largest moon Titan lie the largest (and only known) bodies of surface liquid in the Solar System outside of Earth. But on Titan, where temperatures are regularly around negative 300ºF, the liquid isn’t water but rather methane and ethane: compounds which are found as gases here on Earth. Titan’s seas and lakes are exotic environments that scientists are only just starting to understand, and even with radar imaging by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft there’s a lot we just don’t know about them. But one thing some researchers have managed to figure out using simulated Titan environments in the lab is that these lakes may sometimes fizz with bubbles of nitrogen—potentially explaining some of the mysteries of Cassini’s observations.

“Thanks to this work on nitrogen’s solubility, we’re now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we’d expected,” said Jason Hofgartner of JPL, who serves as a co-investigator on Cassini’s radar team and was a co-author of the study.

Read the news straight from NASA here: Experiments Show Titan Lakes May Fizz with Nitrogen


Revisit Our First (and Only) Landing on Titan

View from Huygens’ camera as it descended to the surface of Titan on Jan. 14, 2005. ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

When you think of spacecraft landings on other worlds, you probably first think of Mars, the Moon, Venus, and comet 67P (if you’ve been following along over the past couple of years.) But—in addition to the asteroid Eros and hard impacts on a comet and Mercury—Saturn’s moon Titan was also visited by an alien (i.e., Earthly) spacecraft back in January of 2005. ESA’s Huygens probe, which traveled to Saturn onboard the Cassini orbiter, was deployed to the surface of Titan six months after Cassini arrived in orbit at Saturn. Huygens took 20 days to reach the cloud-covered moon, and during its two-and-a-half hour descent on Jan. 14, 2005 transmitted our first—and last—views from below Titan’s clouds and even from its methane-slush-covered surface. It was the first landing on a moon other than our own and the farthest landing from the Sun, but hopefully not the final time we’ll visit the fascinating surface of this icy moon.

Read more and watch the video of the Huygens probe landing on the Cassini mission site: Huygens: ‘Ground Truth’ from an Alien Moon

Bright Clouds Make a Comeback on Titan’s North Pole

Titan’s methane lake-covered north pole imaged in infrared on Oct. 29, 2016 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Floating high above Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, wispy clouds have finally started to return to the moon’s northern latitudes…but in much less numbers than expected.

Models of Titan’s climate have predicted more cloud activity during early northern summer than what Cassini has observed so far, suggesting that the current understanding of the giant moon’s changing seasons is incomplete.

Watch an animation of the clouds above in action here, and read the full story at: Send in the Clouds

This is What it Would Look Like to Fight Flying Dragons on Titan

Obviously this is a totally-for-fun sci-fi video, but what a video! Created by Oscar-nominated Irish filmmaker Ruairi Robinson, it shows fleets of very industrial-looking fighter skiffs hunting giant flying eels through the skies of some very cloudy planet… the first thought that came to my mind was Titan! (Although Titan is more hazy than cloudy but that’s just getting nitpicky.) Check out the video above… if this ever becomes a feature-length film I know I’ll be buying a ticket for sure.

HT to my Facebook friend and fantasy artist Bob Eggleton.

Credit: Ruairi Robinson. Developed with the assistance of the Irish Film Board.

UPDATE 3/23: This proof-of-concept short may become a feature length movie, thanks to District 9 director Neill Blomkamp and X-Men: Days of Future Past producer Simon Kinberg… and also to all the people on the ‘net who have been raving about it! Read more on The Verge here.

Despeckled Radar Images Give a Clearer View of Titan’s Shores

Before despeckling (top) and after (bottom) images of portions of the shoreline around Ligeia Mare, Titan's second-largest hydrocarbon sea.  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Before despeckling (top) and after (bottom) images of portions of the shoreline around Ligeia Mare, Titan’s second-largest hydrocarbon sea. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

At 1,600 miles (2,576 km) across Titan is by far Saturn’s largest moon – in fact it’s the second-largest satellite in the solar system. It’s also the only world besides Earth where liquids have been found in large amounts on the surface, in the form of lakes and streams of frigid methane and ethane. This makes Titan an intriguing subject of study for planetary scientists, but unfortunately it’s not all that easy to get a good look at its surface because of its thick orange clouds and dense atmosphere.

Now, researchers have developed a “despeckling” method to smooth out Cassini’s typically grainy radar maps, giving scientists a whole new way to look at Titan’s alien — yet surprisingly Earth-like — surface.

Read the rest of my article on Discovery News here. 

Remembering Huygens’ Titan Landing, Ten Years Later

First color image from the surface of Titan, Jan. 14, 2005 (ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

This incredible image was captured ten years ago today, on January 14, 2005. It shows the murky surface of Saturn’s moon Titan as seen by the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe after it made its historic descent through the moon’s thick haze and clouds and landed in a frozen plain of crusty methane mud and icy pebbles. During the descent and after landing Huygens returned data for several hours before communication was lost. The groundbreaking images and information it sent back has proved invaluable to scientists studying this unique and mysterious moon, which is at the same time extremely alien and surprisingly Earth-like.

“It was eerie…we saw bright hills above a dark plain, a weird combination of light and dark. It was like seeing a landscape out of Dante.”

– Jonathan Lunine, Cassini-Huygens mission scientist

Learn more about the Huygens landing here and check out an incredible video below zooming in a billion times from Saturn orbit to Titan’s surface:

Read the rest of this entry

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