Titanic Discovery


This image, captured by Cassini's imaging spectrometer in July of 2009, shows a body of water on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The mission marks many firsts for cosmic exploration: Cassini is "the farthest robotic outpost that humanity has ever established around the Sun" since it glided into Saturn's orbit in the summer of 2004. Carolyn Porco led the imaging team on Cassini to investigate what was the "largest single expanse of unexplored terrain. . . remaining in our solar system." The team discovered that Titan's surface is characterized by drainage patterns, ice pebbles, dunes and shorelines that can only be formed by liquids. They learned that methane is condensable in Titan's atmosphere, meaning that there can be rain, haze and clouds that prevent sunlight from reaching the surface. The condensed methane carves gullies, forms rivers and cataracts, pools in basins and craters, and even carves canyons.

In her TED talk about Cassini's findings, Porco likens the glimmering liquid to "Lake Michigan brimming with paint thinner." As remarkable as the geography is, the investigation of Saturn's moons has even greater implications. Porco points out that the environment is potentially suitable for living organisms and the details collected by the Cassini team has enormous cosmic reach: "If we could demonstrate that genesis had occurred not once but twice independently in our solar system, then that means by inference, it has occurred a staggering number of times throughtout the universe and its 13.7 billion year history."

Image courtesy of Nasa.gov.