Global Geology of Saturn’s Largest Moon Titan Revealed in Stunning Map

The map is based on radar and visible and infrared images of Titan.

Saturn’s Moon Titan is one of the solar system’s most puzzling places. In addition to a few other places in the solar system like Mars, Enceladus and Europa; two moons orbiting Saturn and Jupiter respectively, researchers are eager to understand more about Titan.

Why? Because there is some belief that this alien moon may actually be home to alien life. Whether or not this is so is an open question and a topic of scientific assessment and research.

In order to understand more about Titan, researchers need to understand what its surface is really like. Thankfully, experts have now completed the very first map showing the Titan’s global geology. The new chart has revealed a dynamic alien world featuring dunes, lakes, impact craters as well as other interesting geological features.

Planetary geologist David Williams, from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, worked with a team of researchers, led by planetary geologist Rosaly Lopes of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to develop the global geological map of Titan.

This undated NASA handout shows Saturn's moon, Titan, in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. The Cassini spacecraft took the image while on its mission to. gather information on Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons. The different colors represent various atmospheric content on Titan. Image Credit: NASA.
This undated NASA handout shows Saturn’s moon, Titan, in ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. The Cassini spacecraft took the image while on its mission to gather information on Saturn, its rings, atmosphere, and moons. The different colors represent various atmospheric content on Titan. Image Credit: NASA.

The map and its discoveries, which include the relative age of Titan’s geological terrain were published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“Titan has an active methane-based hydrologic cycle that has shaped a complex geologic landscape, making its surface one of most geologically diverse in the solar system,” revealed Lopes.

“Despite the different materials, temperatures and gravity fields between Earth and Titan, many surface features are similar between the two worlds and can be interpreted as products of the same geologic processes. The map shows that the different geological terrains have a clear distribution with latitude, globally, and that some terrains cover far more area than others,” Lopes added.

To come up with the geological map, Lopes’ team used data from NASA’s Cassini mission, which gathered data about Saturn and its system between 2004 and 2017 and conducted more than 120 overflights above Titan, a moon the size of the planet Mercury.

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Specifically, the scientists used data from Cassini’s radar imager that managed to penetrate Titan’s opaque nitrogen and methane atmosphere.

In addition, the team used data from Cassini’s visible and infrared instruments, which were able to capture some of Titan’s greatest geological features through the methane mist, allowing experts an unprecedented view at the alien moon’s landscape.

This is the first global geologic map of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.
This is the first global geologic map of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU.

“This study is an example of using combined data sets and instruments,” Lopes explained.

“Although we did not have global coverage with  (SAR), we used data from other instruments and other modes from radar to correlate characteristics of the different terrain units, so we could infer what the terrains are even in areas where we don’t have SAR coverage,” he added.

The group of researchers worked to identify exactly what geological features could be determined using radar images, and then extrapolate the features to areas that were not covered by radar.

This is where David Williams’ work kicked in.

Williams accumulated a wealth of experience working with radar images on NASA’s Magellan Venus orbiter. Williams also developed a regional geological map of Titan before.

“The Cassini mission revealed that Titan is a geologically active world, where hydrocarbons like methane and ethane take the role that water has on Earth,” Williams revealed.

“These hydrocarbons rain down on the surface, flow in streams and rivers, accumulate in lakes and seas and evaporate into the atmosphere. It’s quite an astounding world!”