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Saturn’s Titan: A World of Surprises

This impression of Titan’s surface is based on data from the European Space Agency's Huygens lander, Credit: Cassini-Huygens DISR

Saturn’s moon Titan provides the best opportunity to study conditions very similar to Earth – in terms of climate, meteorology and astrobiology.

That’s the observation from Athena Coustenis from the Paris-Meudon Observatory in France. The scientist is presenting this perspective today at the European Planetary Science Congress in Madrid.

Titan is a “unique world on its own, a paradise for exploring new geological, atmospheric and internal processes,” Coustenis reports.

To draw these conclusions data was analyzed from several different missions, including NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft (1980), the Infrared Space Observatory (1997), and the Cassini spacecraft (2004 onwards)…complemented by ground-based observations.

Collectively, detailed observations of Saturn’s moon Titan have now spanned 30 years, covering an entire solar orbit for this distant world.

Change with its seasons

“As with Earth, conditions on Titan change with its seasons,” Coustenis notes in a press statement, adding:

“We can see differences in atmospheric temperatures, chemical composition and circulation patterns, especially at the poles. For example, hydrocarbon lakes form around the north polar region during winter due to colder temperatures and condensation. Also, a haze layer surrounding Titan at the northern pole is significantly reduced during the equinox because of the atmospheric circulation patterns. This is all very surprising because we didn’t expect to find any such rapid changes, especially in the deeper layers of the atmosphere.”

The main cause of these cycles is solar radiation.

Coustenis reports: “It’s amazing to think that the Sun still dominates over other energy sources even as far out as Titan, over 1.5 billion kilometers from us.”

By Leonard David


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