December 5, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

It Was the Year of Titan

Of the top 10 astronomy stories for 2005, Astronomy Magazine gave #6 to Cassini’s year at Saturn, and #1 to the Huygens landing on Titan last January 14 (01/14/2005, 01/21/2005).
    The official science papers from that event are now in.  In a special online edition, Nature1 published 9 new papers and articles with the latest results and interpretations of what Huygens found on its 2.5-hour descent and historic landing on the surface, where it survived at least another 3 hours taking pictures and measurements.  Most of the Nature online articles, including video and audio files with links to other resources, have free access.
    Titan, the second-largest moon of all (bigger than the planet Mercury), called the “largest piece of unknown real estate in the solar system” took on a vaguely familiar face as Huygens revealed river channels dissecting hills and emptying out into lakebeds littered with boulders – but with a bizarre difference – methane instead of water, ice grains instead of sand, and ice blocks instead of rocks (see EurekAlert story).  The Cassini orbiter, working in tandem, also took multiple radar scans and focused all its precision instruments on Titan in nine encounters so far, with at least 36 more to go (05/18/2005).  EurekAlert summarized announcements at the American Geophysical Union meeting about the jets on Enceladus (11/28/2005), which joins Titan as a dynamic, eruptive body.  To complete the collection, a gallery of Cassini 2005 images of Saturn’s moons was released by the Imaging Team.
    A series of new mosaics of the Titan landing site, composed of frames taken by the descent imager on Huygens, was released on both the JPL and ESA websites.  Huygens was also the lead story on the Science Channel weekend program Discoveries This Week and will be the subject of a special program December 13-14, Rendezvous with Saturn’s Moon.  NASA and ESA scientists are already working on a follow-up mission: this time, perhaps to float a blimp in the atmosphere to cover more territory and survive longer.  Actual arrival, after planning, building, launching and cruising, will probably take at least 17 years, if funds can be raised.

1Web focus, “Huygens on Titan,” Nature online feature.  See also the print edition starting with a News Focus by Tobias Owen, “Huygens rediscovers Titan,” Nature 438, 756-757 (8 December 2005) | doi:10.1038/438756a.

After months of waiting, the scientists have spoken.  There is way too much material to cover here.  Titan has to be one of the most intriguing worlds in the solar system beyond earth.  The lack of impact craters and strong suggestions of surface activity (06/09/2005, 04/08/2005) give indications this world is young.  The atmospheric methane blanket is eroding quickly (03/11/2005).  The scientists still have no idea how the atmosphere could last more than a tiny fraction of the assumed age of the solar system (about one forty-fifth), and why no oceans of liquid ethane were found on the surface.  Titan invites intense follow-up investigation by scientists and serious amateurs.  The pictures, meanwhile, are sure to stimulate the wonder and imagination of everyone.

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Categories: Solar System

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