The Eerily Earth-Like Surface of Titan

Fagjun | Published 2018-01-15 17:06

The surface of Titan looks remarkably like that of Earth’s, with features like cliffs and lakes. Does this mean that if Titan can indeed host life, would the lifeforms look like us?


Photos of Titan's polar seas (left), and the Kraken Mare (right), taken by the Cassini spacecraft photos [Images by NASA/JPL]

Photos of Titan's polar seas (left), and the Kraken Mare (right), taken by the Cassini spacecraft photos [Images by NASA/JPL]

 

If you suddenly woke up on the surface of Titan, would you be able to look around the Saturnine moon’s vistas and remark on how similar they are to Earth? Maybe. Until recent times, we didn’t actually know all that much about Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. However, the Cassini mission let us have an unprecedented look at this fascinating faraway satellite thought to possibly be able to host life. Titan came into sharper focus when it was discovered to be a strong candidate for the search for extraterrestrial life, and scientists are now delving more into the Saturnine moon to learn more about what it’s like.

 

In general, scientists have found that Titan is the only other known body in the solar system to have stable surface liquid bodies.



An Earth-Like Surface


Ligeia Mare, one of Titan's hydrocarbon seas [Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell]

Ligeia Mare, one of Titan's hydrocarbon seas [Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell]

 

Two published studies are now presenting a detailed, unprecedented view into the topography of Titan’s surface. Before this, only about a tenth of the surface of this moon has been studied in detail. Therefore, the challenge for the researchers was to somehow cobble together a map covering a larger amount of the moon’s surface using data in a lower resolution.

 

There are also some spots on the moon’s surface that Cassini wasn’t able to cover. Thus, the first study detailed the process of patching up the missing spots on the map by using a computer program to come up with estimates. This effort came up with a vastly improved topographical map of Titan’s surface, including features like 2,000-feet-tall “mountains”.

 

The second study, meanwhile, took particular interest in the liquid features on the surface, such as the lakes and seas. These lakes and seas are filled with liquid hydrocarbons like methane, unlike our lakes and seas on Earth. According to this study’s findings, however, these features do have something in common with their counterparts on Earth: they sit at the same height, much like our bodies of water. This may suggest that Titan’s lakes and seas may be interconnected, meaning that if there’s rain in one part of the moon but not in the other, the liquid will level out.



Life on Titan


A 3D model of Titan's surface, with the depression Doom Mons and depression Sotra Petra in focus [Image by NASA/JPL]

A 3D model of Titan's surface, with the depression Doom Mons and depression Sotra Petra in focus [Image by NASA/JPL]

 

Interestingly, though, Titan also has lakes both large and small nested in mountain-like features. These lakes are on a higher level than the other lakes as well as the seas, just like how our mountain likes are higher than the general water level.

 

Of course, Titan isn’t completely like Earth. There are still glaring differences, like the lake shorelines. Lake shorelines on Earth slope, while the likes on Titan have steep, cliff-like shores that soar straight up. Findings also suggest that Titan is a little flatter, indicating that the moon’s crust has more variations in thickness than expected.

 

This is of course just the start of more detailed studies about Titan. Even so, these findings are already quite remarkable especially considering Titan’s distance from Earth. Eventually, the research may even be able to help other scientists figure out whether or not there’s life on Titan.

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