Titan (moon)

Titan (moon)
Titan in natural color Cassini.jpg
Titan in 2005 by Cassini spacecraft
Discovered by Christiaan Huygens
Discovery date March 25, 1655
Alternate name(s) Saturn VI
Adjective Titanian
Periapsis 1,186,680 km
Apoapsis 1,257,060 km
Semi-major axis 1,221,870 km
Eccentricity 0.0288
Orbital period 15.945 days
Inclination 0.34854 ° (to Saturn's equator)
Satellite of Saturn
Physical characteristics
Mean radius 2,576±2 km (0.404 Earths) [2]
Surface area 8.3×107 km2
Volume 7.16×1010 km3 (0.066 Earths)
Mass 1.3452±0.0002×1023 kg (0.0225 Earths)[2]
Mean density 1.8798±0.0044 g/cm3[2]
Equatorial surface gravity 1.352 m/s2 (0.14 g)
Escape velocity 2.639 km/s
Rotation period Synchronous
Axial tilt Zero
Albedo 0.22[3]
Temperature 93.7 K (−179.5 °C)[4]
Apparent magnitude 8.2[5] to 9.0
Surface pressure 146.7 kPa
Composition Variable[6][7]
98.4% nitrogen (N2),
1.4% methane (CH4);
Lower troposphere:
95% N2, 4.9% CH4

Titan (play /ˈttən/, Ancient Greek: Τῑτάν), or Saturn VI, is the largest moon of Saturn, the only natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere,[8] and the only object other than Earth for which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found.[9]

Titan is the sixth ellipsoidal moon from Saturn. Frequently described as a planet-like moon, Titan has a diameter roughly 50% larger than Earth's moon and is 80% more massive. It is the second-largest moon in the Solar System, after Jupiter's moon Ganymede, and it is larger by volume than the smallest planet, Mercury, although only half as massive. Titan was the first known moon of Saturn, discovered in 1655 by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, and was the fifth moon of a planet apart from the Earth to be discovered.[10]

The moon itself is primarily composed of water ice and rocky material. Much as with Venus prior to the Space Age, the dense, opaque atmosphere prevented understanding of Titan's surface until new information accumulated with the arrival of the Cassini–Huygens mission in 2004, including the discovery of liquid hydrocarbon lakes in the satellite's polar regions. These are the only large, stable bodies of surface liquid known to exist anywhere other than Earth. The surface is geologically young; although mountains and several possible cryovolcanoes have been discovered, it is smooth and few impact craters have been discovered.

The atmosphere of Titan is largely composed of nitrogen; minor components lead to the formation of methane and ethane clouds and nitrogen-rich organic smog. The climate—including wind and rain—creates surface features similar to those of Earth, such as sand dunes, rivers, lakes and seas (probably of liquid methane or ethane) and shorelines, and, like on Earth, is dominated by seasonal weather patterns. With its liquids (both surface and subsurface) and robust nitrogen atmosphere, Titan is viewed as analogous to the early Earth, although at a much lower temperature. The satellite has thus been cited as a possible host for microbial extraterrestrial life or, at least, as a prebiotic environment rich in complex organic chemistry. Researchers have suggested a possible underground liquid ocean might serve as a biotic environment.[11][12] It has also been suggested that a form of life may exist on the surface, using liquid methane as a medium instead of water; and anomalies in atmospheric composition have been reported which are consistent with the presence of such a life-form, but which could also be due to an exotic non-living chemistry.[13]


Discovery and naming

Christiaan Huygens discovered Titan in 1655.

Titan was discovered on March 25, 1655, by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens. Huygens was inspired by Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's four largest moons in 1610 and his improvements on telescope technology.[14] Christiaan, with the help of his brother Constantijn Huygens, Jr., began building telescopes around 1650. Christiaan Huygens discovered this first observed moon orbiting Saturn with the first telescope they built.[15]

He named it simply Saturni Luna (or Luna Saturni, Latin for "Saturn's moon"), publishing in the 1655 tract De Saturni Luna Observatio Nova. After Giovanni Domenico Cassini published his discoveries of four more moons of Saturn between 1673 and 1686, astronomers fell into the habit of referring to these and Titan as Saturn I through V (with Titan then in fourth position). Other early epithets for Titan include "Saturn's ordinary satellite".[16] Titan is officially numbered Saturn VI because after the 1789 discoveries the numbering scheme was frozen to avoid causing any more confusion (Titan having borne the numbers II and IV as well as VI). Numerous small moons have been discovered closer to Saturn since then.

The name Titan, and the names of all seven satellites of Saturn then known, come from John Herschel (son of William Herschel, discoverer of Mimas and Enceladus) in his 1847 publication Results of Astronomical Observations Made at the Cape of Good Hope.[17] He suggested the names of the mythological Titans, sisters and brothers of Kronos, the Greek Saturn.

Orbit and rotation

Titan's orbit (highlighted in red) among the other large inner moons of Saturn. The moons outside its orbit are (l-r) Iapetus and Hyperion; those inside are Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.

Titan orbits Saturn once every 15 days and 22 hours. Like the Earth's moon and many of the other gas giant satellites, its orbital period is identical to its rotational period; Titan is thus tidally locked in synchronous rotation with Saturn, and thus always shows one face to the planet. Because of this, there is a sub-Saturnian point on its surface, from which the planet would appear to hang directly overhead. Longitudes on Titan are measured westward from the meridian passing through this point.[18] Its orbital eccentricity is 0.0288, and it is inclined 0.348 degrees relative to the Saturnian equator.[1] Viewed from Earth, the moon reaches an angular distance of about 20 Saturn radii (just over 1.2 million kilometers) from Saturn and subtends a disk 0.8 arcseconds in diameter.

Titan is locked in a 3:4 orbital resonance with the small, irregularly shaped satellite Hyperion. A "slow and smooth" evolution of the resonance—in which Hyperion would have migrated from a chaotic orbit—is considered unlikely, based on models. Hyperion probably formed in a stable orbital island, while massive Titan absorbed or ejected bodies that made close approaches.[19]

Bulk characteristics

Titan is 5,150 km across, compared to 4,879 km for the planet Mercury, 3,474 km for Earth's moon, and 12,742 km for the Earth. Before the arrival of Voyager 1 in 1980, Titan was thought to be slightly larger than Ganymede (diameter 5,262 km) and thus the largest moon in the Solar System; this was an overestimation caused by Titan's dense, opaque atmosphere, which extends many miles above its surface and increases its apparent diameter.[20] Titan's diameter and mass (and thus its density) are similar to those of the Jovian moons Ganymede and Callisto.[21] Based on its bulk density of 1.88 g/cm3, Titan's bulk composition is half water ice and half rocky material. Though similar in composition to Dione and Enceladus, it is denser due to gravitational compression.

Titan is probably differentiated into several layers with a 3,400 km rocky center surrounded by several layers composed of different crystal forms of ice.[22] Its interior may still be hot and there may be a liquid layer consisting of a "magma" composed of water and ammonia between the ice Ih crust and deeper ice layers made of high-pressure forms of ice. The presence of ammonia allows water to remain liquid even at temperatures as low as 176 K (−97 °C) (for eutectic mixture with water).[23] Evidence for such an ocean has recently been uncovered by the Cassini probe in the form of natural extremely low frequency (ELF) radio waves in Titan's atmosphere. Titan's surface is thought to be a poor reflector of ELF waves, so they may instead be reflecting off the liquid-ice boundary of a subsurface ocean.[24] Surface features were observed by the Cassini spacecraft to systematically shift by up to 30 km between October 2005 and May 2007, which suggests that the crust is decoupled from the interior, and provides additional evidence for an interior liquid layer.[25]

An early 2000 study by DLR Institute of Planetary Research at Berlin-Adlershof placed Titan in a "large icy satellite" group along with the Galilean moons Callisto and Ganymede.[26]

Titan Earth Moon Comparison.png
Titan cutaway.svg
Masses of Saturnian moons.png
Size comparison: Titan in infrared (lower left) with the Moon and Earth (top and right) Titan's theorized internal structure Mass comparison: At 96% of their total mass, Titan dominates the Saturnian moons


True-color image of layers of haze in Titan's atmosphere

Titan is the only known moon with a fully developed atmosphere that consists of more than just trace gases. Observations from the Voyager space probes have shown that the Titanian atmosphere is denser than Earth's, with a surface pressure about 1.45 times that of Earth's. Titan's atmosphere is about 1.19 times as massive as Earth's overall,[27] or about 7.3 times more massive on a per surface area basis. It supports opaque haze layers that block most visible light from the Sun and other sources and renders Titan's surface features obscure. The atmosphere is so thick and the gravity so low that humans could fly through it by flapping "wings" attached to their arms.[28] Titan's lower gravity means that its atmosphere is far more extended than Earth's; even at a distance of 975 km, the Cassini spacecraft had to make adjustments to maintain a stable orbit against atmospheric drag.[29] The atmosphere of Titan is opaque at many wavelengths and a complete reflectance spectrum of the surface is impossible to acquire from the outside.[30] It was not until the arrival of the Cassini–Huygens mission in 2004 that the first direct images of Titan's surface were obtained. The Huygens probe was unable to detect the direction of the Sun during its descent, and although it was able to take images from the surface, the Huygens team likened the process to "taking pictures of an asphalt parking lot at dusk".[31]

The presence of a significant atmosphere was first suspected by Spanish astronomer Josep Comas Solà, who observed distinct limb darkening on Titan in 1903,[32] and confirmed by Gerard P. Kuiper in 1944 using a spectroscopic technique that yielded an estimate of an atmospheric partial pressure of methane of the order of 100 millibars (10 kPa).[33] Subsequent observations in the 1970s showed that Kuiper's figures had been significant underestimates; methane abundances in Titan's atmosphere were ten times higher, and the surface pressure was at least double what he had predicted. The high surface pressure meant that methane could only form a small fraction of Titan's atmosphere.[34] In 1981, Voyager 1 made the first detailed observations of Titan's atmosphere, revealing that its surface pressure was higher than Earth's, at 1.5 bars.[35]

Crescent Titan with sunlit northern hemisphere
Titan's winter hemisphere (top) is slightly darker in visible light due to a high-altitude haze

Titan's atmosphere is the only dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere in the Solar System aside from the Earth's. The atmospheric composition in the stratosphere is 98.4% nitrogen with the remaining 1.6% composed mostly of methane (1.4%) and hydrogen (0.1–0.2%).[7] Because methane condenses out of Titan's atmosphere at high altitudes, its abundance increases as one descends below the tropopause at an altitude of 32 km, leveling off at a value of 4.9% between 8 km and the surface.[6][7] There are trace amounts of other hydrocarbons, such as ethane, diacetylene, methylacetylene, acetylene and propane, and of other gases, such as cyanoacetylene, hydrogen cyanide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, cyanogen, argon and helium.[6] The orange color as seen from space must be produced by other more complex chemicals in small quantities, possibly tholins, tar-like organic precipitates.[36] The hydrocarbons are thought to form in Titan's upper atmosphere in reactions resulting from the breakup of methane by the Sun's ultraviolet light, producing a thick orange smog.[37] Titan has no magnetic field, although studies in 2008 showed that Titan retains remnants of Saturn's magnetic field on the brief occasions when it passes outside Saturn's magnetosphere and is directly exposed to the solar wind.[38] This may ionize and carry away some molecules from the top of the atmosphere. In November 2007, scientists uncovered evidence of negative ions with roughly 10 000 times the mass of hydrogen in Titan's ionosphere, which are believed to fall into the lower regions to form the orange haze which obscures Titan's surface. Their structure is not currently known, but they are believed to be tholins, and may form the basis for the formation of more complex molecules, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.[39]

Energy from the Sun should have converted all traces of methane in Titan's atmosphere into more complex hydrocarbons within 50 million years—a short time compared to the age of the Solar System. This suggests that methane must be somehow replenished by a reservoir on or within Titan itself. That Titan's atmosphere contains over a thousand times more methane than carbon monoxide would appear to rule out significant contributions from cometary impacts, since comets are composed of more carbon monoxide than methane. That Titan might have accreted an atmosphere from the early Saturnian nebula at the time of formation also seems unlikely; in such a case, it ought to have atmospheric abundances similar to the solar nebula, including hydrogen and neon.[40] Many astronomers have suggested that the ultimate origin for the methane in Titan's atmosphere is from within Titan itself, released via eruptions from cryovolcanoes.[41][42][43] A possible biological origin for the methane has not been discounted (see below).[12]

There is also a pattern of air circulation found flowing in the direction of Titan's rotation, from west to east.[44] Observations of the atmosphere, made in 2004 by Cassini, also suggest that Titan is a "super rotator", like Venus, with an atmosphere that rotates much faster than its surface.[45]

Titan's ionosphere is also more complex than Earth's, with the main ionosphere at an altitude of 1,200 km but with an additional layer of charged particles at 63 km. This splits Titan's atmosphere to some extent into two separate radio-resonating chambers. The source of natural ELF waves (see above) on Titan is unclear as there does not appear to be extensive lightning activity.[24]


A graph detailing temperature, pressure, and other aspects of Titan's climate. The atmospheric haze lowers the temperature in the lower atmosphere, while methane raises the temperature at the surface. Cryovolcanoes erupt methane into the atmosphere, which then rains down onto the surface, forming lakes.

Titan's surface temperature is about 94 K (−179 °C, or −290 °F). At this temperature water ice does not sublimate or evaporate, so the atmosphere is nearly free of water vapor. The haze in Titan's atmosphere contributes to the moon's anti-greenhouse effect by reflecting sunlight back into space, making its surface significantly colder than its upper atmosphere.[46] The moon receives just about 1% of the amount of sunlight Earth gets.[47] Titan's clouds, probably composed of methane, ethane or other simple organics, are scattered and variable, punctuating the overall haze.[20] This atmospheric methane conversely creates a greenhouse effect on Titan's surface, without which Titan would be far colder.[48] The findings of the Huygens probe indicate that Titan's atmosphere periodically rains liquid methane and other organic compounds onto the moon's surface.[49] In October 2007, observers noted an increase in apparent opacity in the clouds above the equatorial Xanadu region, suggestive of "methane drizzle", though this was not direct evidence for rain.[50] However, subsequent images of lakes in Titan's southern hemisphere taken over one year show that they are enlarged and filled by seasonal hydrocarbon rainfall.[51] It is possible that areas of Titan's surface may be coated in a layer of tholins, but this has not been confirmed.[52] The presence of rain indicates that Titan is the only celestial body other than Earth upon which rainbows could form. However, given the extreme opacity of the atmosphere in visible light, the vast majority of any rainbows would be visible only in the infrared.[53]

Simulations of global wind patterns based on wind speed data taken by Huygens during its descent have suggested that Titan's atmosphere circulates in a single enormous Hadley cell. Warm air rises in Titan's southern hemisphere—which was experiencing summer during Huygens' descent—and sinks in the northern hemisphere, resulting in high-altitude air flow from south to north and low-altitude airflow from north to south. Such a large Hadley cell is only possible on a slowly rotating world such as Titan.[44] The pole-to-pole wind circulation cell appears to be centered on the stratosphere; simulations suggest it ought to change every twelve years, with a three-year transition period, over the course of Titan's year (30 terrestrial years).[54] This cell creates a global band of low pressure—what is in effect a variation of Earth's Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Unlike on Earth, however, where the oceans confine the ITCZ to the tropics, on Titan, the zone wanders from one pole to the other, taking methane rainclouds with it. This means that Titan, despite its frigid temperatures, can be said to have a tropical climate.[55]

The number of methane lakes visible near Titan's southern pole is decidedly smaller than the number observed near the north pole. As the south pole is currently in summer and the north in winter, an emerging hypothesis is that methane rains onto the poles in winter and evaporates in summer.[56]


A cloud imaged in false color over Titan's north pole

In September 2006, Cassini imaged a large cloud at a height of 40 km over Titan's north pole. Although methane is known to condense in Titan's atmosphere, the cloud was more likely to be ethane, as the detected size of the particles was only 1–3 micrometers and ethane can also freeze at these altitudes. In December, Cassini again observed cloud cover and detected methane, ethane and other organics. The cloud was over 2400 km in diameter and was still visible during a following flyby a month later. One hypothesis is that it is currently raining (or, if cool enough, snowing) on the north pole; the downdrafts at high northern latitudes are strong enough to drive organic particles towards the surface. These were the strongest evidence yet for the long-hypothesized "methanological" cycle (analogous to Earth's hydrological cycle) on Titan.[57]

Clouds have also been found over the south pole. While typically covering 1% of Titan's disk, outburst events have been observed in which the cloud cover rapidly expands to as much as 8%. One hypothesis asserts that the southern clouds are formed when heightened levels of sunlight during the Titanian summer generate uplift in the atmosphere, resulting in convection. This explanation is complicated by the fact that cloud formation has been observed not only post–summer solstice but also at mid-spring. Increased methane humidity at the south pole possibly contributes to the rapid increases in cloud size.[58] There had been summer in Titan's southern hemisphere until 2010, when Saturn's orbit, which governs the moon's motion, tilted the northern hemisphere towards the Sun.[44] When the seasons switch, it is expected that ethane will begin to condense over the south pole.[59]

Research models that match well with observations suggest that clouds on Titan cluster at preferred coordinates and that cloud cover varies by distance from the surface on different parts of the satellite. In the polar regions (above 60 degrees latitude), widespread and permanent ethane clouds appear in and above the troposphere; at lower latitudes, mainly methane clouds are found between 15 and 18 km, and are more sporadic and localized. In the summer hemisphere, frequent, thick but sporadic methane clouds seem to cluster around 40°.[54]

Ground-based observations also reveal seasonal variations in cloud cover. Over the course of Saturn's 30-year orbit, Titan's cloud systems appear to manifest for 25 years, and then fade for four to five years before reappearing again.[57]

Cassini has also detected high-altitude, white, cirrus-type clouds in Titan's upper atmosphere, likely formed of methane.[60]

Although no evidence of lightning activity has yet been observed on Titan, computer models suggest that clouds in the moon's lower troposphere can accumulate enough charge to generate lightning from an altitude of roughly 20 km.[61]

Surface features

Composite map of Titan's surface
Map of Titan's surface from April 2011.

The surface of Titan has been described as "complex, fluid-processed, [and] geologically young."[62] The Cassini spacecraft has used radar altimetry and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) imaging to map portions of Titan during its close fly-bys of the moon. The first images revealed a diverse geology, with both rough and smooth areas. There are features that seem volcanic in origin, which probably disgorge water mixed with ammonia. There are also streaky features, some of them hundreds of kilometers in length, that appear to be caused by windblown particles.[63][64] Examination has also shown the surface to be relatively smooth; the few objects that seem to be impact craters appeared to have been filled in, perhaps by raining hydrocarbons or volcanoes. Radar altimetry suggests height variation is low, typically no more than 150 meters. Occasional elevation changes of 500 meters have been discovered and Titan has mountains that sometimes reach several hundred meters to more than 1 kilometer in height.[65]

Titan's surface is marked by broad regions of bright and dark terrain. These include Xanadu, a large, reflective equatorial area about the size of Australia. It was first identified in infrared images from the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994, and later viewed by the Cassini spacecraft. The convoluted region is filled with hills and cut by valleys and chasms.[66] It is criss-crossed in places by dark lineaments—sinuous topographical features resembling ridges or crevices. These may represent tectonic activity, which would indicate that Xanadu is geologically young. Alternatively, the lineaments may be liquid-formed channels, suggesting old terrain that has been cut through by stream systems.[67] There are dark areas of similar size elsewhere on the moon, observed from the ground and by Cassini; it had been speculated that these are methane or ethane seas, but Cassini observations seem to indicate otherwise (see below).

Titan multi spectral overlay.jpg
Titan globe m.jpg
Mosaic of Titan from Cassini's February 2005 flyby. The large dark region is Shangri-la. Titan in false color showing surface details and atmosphere with Xanadu in the bright region at the center-right. Titan Globe, a mosaic of infrared and radar images with nomenclature


False-color Cassini radar mosaic of Titan's north polar region. Blue coloring indicates low radar reflectivity, caused by hydrocarbon seas, lakes and tributary networks filled with liquid ethane, methane and dissolved N2.[7] Photographs suggest that the large body at lower left, Kraken Mare, has about twice the extent visible here. Ligeia Mare is at lower right.

The possibility of hydrocarbon seas on Titan was first suggested based on Voyager 1 and 2 data that showed Titan to have a thick atmosphere of approximately the correct temperature and composition to support them, but direct evidence wasn't obtained until 1995 when data from Hubble and other observations suggested the existence of liquid methane on Titan, either in disconnected pockets or on the scale of satellite-wide oceans, similar to water on Earth.[68]

The Cassini mission confirmed the former hypothesis, although not immediately. When the probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was hoped that hydrocarbon lakes or oceans might be detectable by reflected sunlight from the surface of any liquid bodies, but no specular reflections were initially observed.[69] At Titan's south pole, an enigmatic dark feature named Ontario Lacus was identified[70] (and later confirmed to be a lake).[71] A possible shoreline was also identified at the pole via radar imagery.[72] Following a flyby on July 22, 2006, in which the Cassini spacecraft's radar imaged the northern latitudes (which were then in winter), a number of large, smooth (and thus dark to radar) patches were seen dotting the surface near the pole.[73] Based on the observations, scientists announced "definitive evidence of lakes filled with methane on Saturn's moon Titan" in January 2007.[9][74] The Cassini–Huygens team concluded that the imaged features are almost certainly the long-sought hydrocarbon lakes, the first stable bodies of surface liquid found outside of Earth. Some appear to have channels associated with liquid and lie in topographical depressions.[9] Overall, the Cassini radar observations have shown that lakes cover only a few per cent of the surface and are concentrated near the poles, making Titan much drier than Earth.[75]

In June 2008, the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer on Cassini confirmed the presence of liquid ethane beyond doubt in Ontario Lacus.[76] On December 21, 2008, Cassini passed directly over Ontario Lacus and observed specular reflection in radar. The strength of the reflection saturated the probe's receiver, indicating that the lake level did not vary by more than 3 mm (implying either that surface winds were minimal, or the lake's hydrocarbon fluid is viscous).[77][78] On 8 July 2009, Cassini's VIMS observed a specular reflection in 5 micrometre infrared light off Jingpo Lacus, a lake in the north polar region, shortly after the area emerged from 15 years of winter darkness.[79][80]

Radar measurements made in July 2009 and January 2010 indicate that Ontario Lacus is extremely shallow, with an average depth of 0.4–3.2 m, and a maximum depth of 2.9–7.4 m.[81] In contrast, the northern hemisphere's Ligeia Mare has depths exceeding 8 m, the maximum measurable by the radar instrument.[81]

PIA12481 Titan specular reflection.jpg
Liquid lakes on titan.jpg
Titan 2009-01 ISS polar maps.jpg
Titan S. polar lake changes 2004-5.jpg
Photo of infrared specular reflection off Jingpo Lacus, a lake in the north polar region Perspective radar view of Bolsena Lacus (lower right) and other northern hemisphere hydrocarbon lakes Contrasting images of the number of lakes in Titan's northern hemisphere (left) and southern hemisphere (right) Two images of Titan's southern hemisphere acquired one year apart, showing changes in south polar lakes

Impact craters

Impact crater on Titan's surface

Radar, SAR and imaging data from Cassini have revealed few impact craters on Titan's surface, suggesting it is relatively young. The few impact craters discovered include a 440 km wide multi-ring impact basin named Menrva seen by Cassini's ISS as a bright-dark concentric pattern.[82] A smaller, 60 km wide, flat-floored crater named Sinlap[83] and a 30 km crater with a central peak and dark floor named Ksa have also been observed.[84] Radar and Cassini imaging have also revealed a number of "crateriforms", circular features on the surface of Titan that may be impact related, but lack certain features that would make identification certain. For example, a 90 km wide ring of bright, rough material known as Guabonito has been observed by Cassini.[85] This feature is thought to be an impact crater filled in by dark, windblown sediment. Several other similar features have been observed in the dark Shangri-la and Aaru regions. Radar observed several circular features that may be craters in the bright region Xanadu during Cassini's April 30, 2006 flyby of Titan.[86]

Pre-Cassini models of impact trajectories and angles suggest that where the impactor strikes the water ice crust, a small amount of ejecta remains as liquid water within the crater. It may persist as liquid for centuries or longer, sufficient for "the synthesis of simple precursor molecules to the origin of life."[87] While infill from various geological processes is one reason for Titan's relative deficiency of craters, atmospheric shielding also plays a role; it is estimated that Titan's atmosphere reduces the number of craters on its surface by a factor of two.[88]

Cryovolcanism and mountains

Near-infrared image of Tortola Facula, thought to be a possible cryovolcano
False-color VIMS image of possible cryovolcano Sotra Facula, combined with 3-D map based on radar data, showing 1000 m high peaks and a 1500 m deep crater

Scientists have long speculated that conditions on Titan resemble those of early Earth, though at a much lower temperature. The detection of Argon 40 in the atmosphere in 2004 indicated that volcanoes had spawned plumes of "lava" composed of water and ammonia.[89] Global maps of the lake distribution on Titan's surface revealed that there is not enough surface methane to account for its continued presence in its atmosphere, and thus that a significant portion must be added through volcanic processes.[51]

Still there is a paucity of surface features which can be unambiguously interpreted as cryovolcanoes.[90] One of the first of such features revealed by Cassini radar observations in 2004, called Ganesa Macula, resembles the geographic features called "pancake domes" found on Venus, and was thus initially believed to be cryovolcanic in origin, although the American Geophysical Union refuted this hypothesis in December 2008. The feature was found to be not a dome at all, but appeared to result from accidental combination of light and dark patches.[91][92] In 2004 Cassini also detected an unusually bright feature (called Tortola Facula), which was interpreted as a cryovolcanic dome.[93] No similar features have been identified as of 2010.[94] In December 2008, astronomers announced the discovery of two transient but unusually long-lived "bright spots" in Titan's atmosphere, which appear too persistent to be explained by mere weather patterns, suggesting they were the result of extended cryovolcanic episodes.[23]

In March, 2009, structures resembling lava flows were announced in a region of Titan called Hotei Orcus, which appears to fluctuate in brightness over several months. Though many phenomena were suggested to explain this fluctuation, the lava flows were found to rise 200 meters above Titan's surface, consistent with it having been erupted from beneath the surface.[95]

A mountain range measuring 150 km long, 30 km wide and 1.5 km high was also discovered by Cassini in 2006. This range lies in the southern hemisphere and is thought to be composed of icy material and covered in methane snow. The movement of tectonic plates, perhaps influenced by a nearby impact basin, could have opened a gap through which the mountain's material upwelled.[96] Prior to Cassini, scientists assumed that most of the topography on Titan would be impact structures, yet these findings reveal that similar to Earth, the mountains were formed through geological processes.[97] In December 2010, the Cassini mission team announced the most compelling possible cryovolcano yet found. Named Sotra Facula, it is one in a chain of at least three mountains, each between 1000 and 1500 m in height, several of which are topped by large craters. The ground around their bases appears to be overlaid by frozen lava flows.[98]

If volcanism on Titan really exists, it, like that on Earth, is believed to be driven by energy released from the decay of radioactive elements within the mantle.[23] Magma on Earth is made of liquid rock, which is less dense than the solid rocky crust through which it erupts. Because ice is less dense than water, Titan's watery magma would be denser than its solid icy crust. This means that cryovolcanism on Titan would require a large amount of additional energy to operate, possibly via tidal flexing from nearby Saturn.[23] Alternatively, the pressure necessary to drive the cryovolcanoes may be caused by ice Ih "underplating" Titan's outer shell. The low-pressure ice, overlaying a liquid layer of ammonium sulfate, ascends buoyantly, and the unstable system can produce dramatic plume events. Titan is resurfaced through the process by grain-sized ice and ammonium sulfate ash, which helps produce a wind-shaped landscape and sand dune features.[99]

In 2008 Jeffrey Moore proposed an alternate view of Titan's geology. Noting that no volcanic features had been unambiguously identified on Titan so far, he asserted that Titan is a geologically dead world, whose surface is shaped only by impact cratering, fluvial and eolian erosion, mass wasting and other exogenic processes. According to this hypothesis, methane is not emitted by volcanoes but slowly diffuses out of Titan's cold and stiff interior. Ganesa Macula may be an eroded impact crater with a dark dune in the center. The mountainous ridges observed in some regions can be explained as heavily degraded scarps of large multi-ring impact structures or as a result of the global contraction due to the slow cooling of the interior. Even in this case Titan may still have an internal ocean made of the eutectic water–ammonia mixture with the temperature of 176 K (−97 °C), which is low enough to be explained by the decay of radioactive elements in the core. The bright Xanadu terrain may be a degraded heavily cratered terrain similar to that observed on the surface of Callisto. Indeed, were it not for its lack of an atmosphere, Callisto could serve as a model for Titan's geology in this scenario. Jeffrey Moore even called Titan Callisto with weather.[90][100]

Dark terrain

Sand dunes on Earth (top), compared with dunes on Titan's surface

In the first images of Titan's surface taken by Earth-based telescopes in the early 2000s, large regions of dark terrain were revealed straddling Titan's equator.[101] Prior to the arrival of Cassini, these regions were thought to be seas of organic matter like tar or liquid hydrocarbons.[102] Radar images captured by the Cassini spacecraft have instead revealed some of these regions to be extensive plains covered in longitudinal sand dunes, up to 330 meters high[103] about a kilometer wide, and tens to hundreds of kilometers long.[104] The longitudinal (or linear) dunes are believed to be formed by moderately variable winds that either follow one mean direction or alternate between two different directions. Dunes of this type are always aligned with average wind direction. In the case of Titan, steady zonal (eastward) winds combine with variable tidal winds (approximately 0.5 meters per second).[105] The tidal winds are the result of tidal forces from Saturn on Titan's atmosphere, which are 400 times stronger than the tidal forces of the Moon on Earth and tend to drive wind toward the equator. This wind pattern causes sand dunes to build up in long parallel lines aligned west-to-east. The dunes break up around mountains, where the wind direction shifts.

The sand on Titan might have formed when liquid methane rained and eroded the ice bedrock, possibly in the form of flash floods. Alternatively, the sand could also have come from organic solids produced by photochemical reactions in Titan's atmosphere.[103][105][106] Studies of dunes' composition in May 2008 revealed that they possessed less water than the rest of Titan, and are most likely to derive from organic material clumping together after raining onto the surface.[107]

Observation and exploration

Titan's haze in 1980 by Voyager 1

Titan is never visible to the naked eye, but can be observed through small telescopes or strong binoculars. Amateur observation is difficult because of the proximity of the satellite to Saturn's brilliant globe and ring system; an occulting bar, covering part of the eyepiece and used to block the bright planet, greatly improves viewing.[108] Titan has a maximum apparent magnitude of +8.2,[5] and mean opposition magnitude 8.4.[109] This compares to +4.6[109] for the similarly sized Ganymede, in the Jovian system.

Observations of Titan prior to the space age were limited. In 1907 Spanish astronomer Josep Comas Solá suggested that he had observed darkening near the edges of Titan's disk and two round, white patches in its center. The deduction of an atmosphere by Kuiper in the 1940s was the next major observational event.[110]

The first probe to visit the Saturnian system was Pioneer 11 in 1979, which determined that Titan was probably too cold to support life.[111] The craft took the first images of the moon (including some of it and Saturn together), but these were of low quality; the first-ever close-up of Titan was taken on September 2, 1979.[112]

Titan was examined by both Voyager 1 and 2 in 1980 and 1981, respectively. Voyager 1's course was diverted specifically to make a closer pass of Titan. Unfortunately, the craft did not possess any instruments that could penetrate Titan's haze, an unforeseen factor. Many years later, intensive digital processing of images taken through Voyager 1's orange filter did reveal hints of the light and dark features now known as Xanadu and Shangri-la,[113] but by then they had already been observed in the infrared by the Hubble Space Telescope. Voyager 2 took only a cursory look at Titan. The Voyager 2 team had the option of steering the spacecraft to take a detailed look at Titan or to use another trajectory which would allow it to visit Uranus and Neptune. Given the lack of surface features seen by Voyager 1, the latter plan was implemented.


Cassini image of Epimetheus and Titan, with the rings of Saturn in the foreground.

Even with the data provided by the Voyagers, Titan remained a body of mystery—a planet-like satellite shrouded in an atmosphere that makes detailed observation difficult. The intrigue that had surrounded Titan since the 17th-century observations of Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Cassini was gratified by a spacecraft named in their honor.

The Cassini–Huygens spacecraft reached Saturn on July 1, 2004, and has begun the process of mapping Titan's surface by radar. A joint project of the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, Cassini–Huygens has proved a very successful mission. The Cassini probe flew by Titan on October 26, 2004, and took the highest-resolution images ever of the moon's surface, at only 1,200 km, discerning patches of light and dark that would be invisible to the human eye from the Earth. Huygens landed[114] on Titan on January 14, 2005, discovering that many of the moon's surface features seem to have been formed by flowing fluids at some point in the past.[115] On July 22, 2006, Cassini made its first targeted, close fly-by at 950 km from Titan; the closest flyby was at 880 km on June 21, 2010.[116] Present liquid on the surface may have been found near the north pole, in the form of many lakes that were recently discovered by Cassini.[73] Titan is the most distant body from Earth that has seen a space probe landing.[117] Titan is also the second moon in the Solar System to have a man-made object land on its surface.

Huygens landing site

Huygens in situ image from Titan's surface—the only image from the surface of a planetary body outside the inner Solar System
Same with different data processing

On January 14, 2005, the Huygens probe landed on the surface of Titan, just off the easternmost tip of a bright region now called Adiri. The probe photographed pale hills with dark "rivers" running down to a dark plain. Current understanding is that the hills (also referred to as highlands) are composed mainly of water ice. Dark organic compounds, created in the upper atmosphere by the ultraviolet radiation of the Sun, may rain from Titan's atmosphere. They are washed down the hills with the methane rain and are deposited on the plains over geological time scales.[118]

After landing, Huygens photographed a dark plain covered in small rocks and pebbles, which are composed of water ice.[118] The two rocks just below the middle of the image on the right are smaller than they may appear: the left-hand one is 15 centimeters across, and the one in the center is 4 centimeters across, at a distance of about 85 centimeters from Huygens. There is evidence of erosion at the base of the rocks, indicating possible fluvial activity. The surface is darker than originally expected, consisting of a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice. It is believed that the "soil" visible in the images is precipitation from the hydrocarbon haze above.

In March 2007, NASA, ESA, and COSPAR decided to name the Huygens landing site the Hubert Curien Memorial Station in memory of the former president of the ESA.[119]

Future missions

The balloon proposed for the Titan Saturn System Mission

The Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM) is a joint NASA/ESA proposal for exploration of Saturn's moons.[120] It envisions a hot-air balloon to float in the moon's atmosphere for six months. It was competing against the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) proposal for funding. In February 2009 it was announced that ESA/NASA had given the EJSM mission priority ahead of the TSSM,[121] although TSSM will continue to be studied for a later launch date. There has also been a proposal for a Titan Mare Explorer (TiME), which would be a low-cost lander that would splash down in a lake near Titan's north pole and float on the surface of the lake for at least 2 Titan days (16 Earth days). It could launch as early as 2015 and arrive in 2022 or 2023.[122]

Prebiotic conditions and possible life

While the Cassini–Huygens mission was not equipped to provide evidence for biology or complex organics, it showed an environment on Titan that is similar, in some ways, to ones theorized for the primordial Earth.[123] Scientists believe that the atmosphere of early Earth was similar in composition to the current atmosphere on Titan, with the important exception of a lack of water vapor on Titan.[124] Many hypotheses have developed that attempt to bridge the step from chemical to biological evolution.

Formation of complex molecules

The Miller-Urey experiment and several following experiments have shown that with an atmosphere similar to that of Titan and the addition of UV radiation, complex molecules and polymer substances like tholins can be generated. The reaction starts with dissociation of nitrogen and methane, forming hydrogen cyanide and acetylene. Further reactions have been studied extensively.[125]

In October 2010, Sarah Horst of the University of Arizona reported finding the five nucleotide bases—building blocks of DNA and RNA—among the many compounds produced when energy was applied to a combination of gases like those in Titan's atmosphere. Horst also found amino acids, the building blocks of protein. She said it was the first time nucleotide bases and amino acids had been found in such an experiment without liquid water being present.[126]

Possible subsurface habitats

Laboratory simulations have led to the suggestion that enough organic material exists on Titan to start a chemical evolution analogous to what is thought to have started life on Earth. While the analogy assumes the presence of liquid water for longer periods than is currently observable, several theories suggest that liquid water from an impact could be preserved under a frozen isolation layer.[127] It has also been observed that liquid ammonia oceans could exist deep below the surface;[11][128] one model suggests an ammonia–water solution as much as 200 km deep beneath a water ice crust, conditions that, "while extreme by terrestrial standards, are such that life could indeed survive".[12] Heat transfer between the interior and upper layers would be critical in sustaining any sub-surface oceanic life.[11] Detection of microbial life on Titan would depend on its biogenic effects. That the atmospheric methane and nitrogen might be of biological origin has been examined, for example.[12]

Methane and life at the surface

It has also been suggested that life could exist in the lakes of liquid methane on Titan, just as organisms on Earth live in water.[129] Such creatures would inhale H2 in place of O2, react it with acetylene instead of glucose, and exhale methane instead of carbon dioxide.[129] In 2005, astrobiologist Chris McKay predicted that if methanogenic life is consuming atmospheric hydrogen in sufficient volume, it will have a measurable effect on the mixing ratio in the troposphere.[129]

Evidence for this form of life was identified in 2010 by Darrell Strobel of Johns Hopkins University; an over-abundance of molecular hydrogen in the upper atmospheric layers, which leads to a downward flow at a rate of roughly 1025 molecules per second. Near the surface the hydrogen apparently disappears, which may imply its consumption by methanogenic life forms.[129][130][131] Another paper released the same month showed little evidence of acetylene on Titan's surface, where scientists had expected the compound to accumulate; according to Strobel, this is consistent with the hypothesis that acetylene is being consumed by methanogens.[130] Chris McKay, while agreeing that presence of life is a possible explanation for the findings about hydrogen and acetylene, has cautioned that other explanations are currently more likely: namely the possibility that the results are due to human error, or to the presence of some as-yet unknown catalyst in the soil.[13] He noted that such a catalyst, effective at 95 K, would in itself be a startling discovery.[13]

There is debate about the effectiveness of methane as a medium for life compared to water;[132] while water is a far better solvent than methane, enabling easier transport of substances in a cell,[130] methane's lesser chemical reactivity allows for the easier formation of large structures akin to proteins.[133]


Despite these biological possibilities, there are formidable obstacles to life on Titan, and any analogy to Earth is inexact. At a vast distance from the Sun, Titan is frigid (a fact exacerbated by the anti-greenhouse effect of its cloud cover), and its atmosphere lacks CO2. Because of these difficulties, scientists such as Jonathan Lunine have viewed Titan less as a likely habitat for life, than as an experiment for examining theories on the conditions that prevailed prior to the appearance of life on Earth.[134] While life itself may not exist, the prebiotic conditions of the Titanian environment and the associated organic chemistry remain of great interest in understanding the early history of the terrestrial biosphere.[123] Using Titan as a prebiotic experiment involves not only observation through spacecraft, but laboratory experiment, and chemical and photochemical modeling on Earth.[125]

Panspermia hypothesis

An alternate explanation for life's hypothetical existence on Titan has been proposed: if life were to be found on Titan, it would be statistically more likely to have originated from Earth than to have appeared independently, a process known as panspermia. It is theorized that large asteroid and cometary impacts on Earth's surface have caused hundreds of millions of fragments of microbe-laden rock to escape Earth's gravity. Calculations indicate that a number of these would encounter many of the bodies in the Solar System, including Titan.[135][136] On the other hand, Jonathan Lunine has argued that any living things in Titan's cryogenic hydrocarbon lakes would need to be so different chemically from Earth life that it would not be possible for one to be the ancestor of the other.[137]

Future conditions

Conditions on Titan could become far more habitable in the future. Six billion years from now, as the Sun becomes a red giant, surface temperatures could rise to ~200 K (−70 °C), high enough for stable oceans of water/ammonia mixture to exist on the surface. As the Sun's ultraviolet output decreases, the haze in Titan's upper atmosphere will be depleted, lessening the anti-greenhouse effect on the surface and enabling the greenhouse created by atmospheric methane to play a far greater role. These conditions together could create an environment agreeable to exotic forms of life, and will persist for several hundred million years. This was sufficient time for simple life to evolve on Earth, although the presence of ammonia on Titan will cause the same chemical reactions to proceed more slowly.[138]

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Further reading

  • Lorenz, Ralph; Jacqueline Mitton (2002). Lifting Titan's Veil: Exploring the Giant Moon of Saturn. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-79348-3. 

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