The Cassini spacecraft observations of Saturn's largest moon, the orange-colored Titan, have given scientists a glimpse of what Earth might have been like before life evolved. They now believe Titan possesses many parallels to Earth, including lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, snow, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanoes.
"Titan is just covered in carbon-bearing material -- it's a giant factory of organic chemicals," according to Ralph Lorenz of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. "We are carbon-based life, and understanding how far along the chain of complexity towards life that chemistry can go in an environment like Titan will be important in understanding the origins of life throughout the universe."
"When we designed the original tour for the Cassini spacecraft, we really did not know what we would find, especially at Enceladus and Titan," said Dennis Matson, the JPL Cassini project scientist. "This extended tour is responding to these new discoveries and giving us a chance to look for more."
Unlike Earth, Titan's lakes, rivers and rain are composed of methane and ethane, and temperatures reach a chilly minus 180 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit). Although Titan's dense atmosphere limits viewing the surface, Cassini's high-resolution radar coverage and imaging by the infrared spectrometer have given scientists a better look.
Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, according to new data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.
At an eye popping minus 179 degrees Celsius (minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit), Titan has a surface of liquid hydrocarbons in the form of methane and ethane with tholins believed to make up its dunes. The term "tholins," coined by Carl Sagan in 1979, describe the complex organic molecules at the heart of prebiotic chemistry.
Cassini has mapped about 20 percent of Titan's surface with radar. Several hundred lakes and seas have been observed, with each of several dozen estimated to contain more hydrocarbon liquid than Earth's oil and gas reserves. Dark dunes that run along the equator contain a volume of organics several hundred times larger than Earth's coal reserves.
Proven reserves of natural gas on Earth total 130 billion tons, enough to provide 300 times the amount of energy the entire United States uses annually for residential heating, cooling and lighting. Dozens of Titan's lakes individually have the equivalent of at least this much energy in the form of methane and ethane.
"This global estimate is based mostly on views of the lakes in the northern polar regions. We have assumed the south might be similar, but we really don't yet know how much liquid is there," said Lorenz. Cassini's radar has observed the south polar region only once, and only two small lakes were visible. Future observations of that area are planned during Cassini's proposed extended mission.
"We also know that some lakes are more than 10 meters or so deep because they appear literally pitch-black to the radar. If they were shallow we'd see the bottom, and we don't," said Lorenz.
The question of how much liquid is on the surface is an important one because methane is a strong greenhouse gas on Titan as well as on Earth, but there is much more of it on Titan. If all the observed liquid on Titan is methane, it would only last a few million years, because as methane escapes into Titan's atmosphere, it breaks down and escapes into space. If the methane were to run out, Titan could become much colder. Scientists believe that methane might be supplied to the atmosphere by venting from the interior in cryovolcanic eruptions. If so, the amount of methane, and the temperature on Titan, may have fluctuated dramatically in Titan's past.
Cassini's mission originally had been scheduled to end in July 2008. A newly-announced two-year extension will include 60 additional orbits of Saturn and more flybys of its exotic moons. These will include 26 flybys of Titan, seven of Enceladus, and one each of Dione, Rhea and Helene. The extension also includes studies of Saturn's rings, its complex magnetosphere, and the planet itself.
"This extension is not only exciting for the science community, but for the world to continue to share in unlocking Saturn's secrets," said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, NASA Headquarters, Washington. "New discoveries are the hallmarks of its success, along with the breathtaking images beamed back to Earth that are simply mesmerizing."
Based on findings from Cassini, scientists think liquid water may be just beneath the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus. The small moon, only one-tenth the size of Titan and one-seventh the size of Earth's moon, is one of the highest-priority targets for the extended mission.
Cassini discovered geysers of water-ice jetting from the Enceladus surface. The geysers, which shoot out at a distance three times the diameter of Enceladus, feed particles into Saturn's most expansive ring. In the extended mission, the spacecraft may come as close as 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the moon's surface.
Other activities for Cassini scientists will include monitoring seasons on Titan and Saturn, observing unique ring events, such as the 2009 equinox when the sun will be in the plane of the rings, and exploring new places within Saturn's magnetosphere.
Cassini has returned a daily stream of data from Saturn's system for almost four years. Its travel scrapbook includes nearly 140,000 images, and information gathered during 62 revolutions around Saturn, 43 flybys of Titan and 12 close flybys of the icy moons.
More than 10 years after launch and almost four years after entering into orbit around Saturn, Cassini is a healthy and robust spacecraft. Three of its science instruments have minor ailments, but the impact on science-gathering is minimal. The spacecraft will have enough propellant left after the extended mission to potentially allow a third phase of operations. Data from the extended mission could lay the groundwork for possible new missions to Titan and Enceladus.
Cassini launched Oct. 15, 1997, from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on a seven-year journey to Saturn, traversing 3.5 billion kilometers (2.2 billion miles).
Posted by Casey Kazan, adapted from materials provided by NASA.