WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists on Monday unveiled the first global geological map of Saturn's lunar titanium, including vast plains and dunes of frozen organic material and lakes of liquid methane, illuminating an exotic world, considered a strong candidate for the search for life The Earth.
FILE PHOTO: This Artist's Concept Predicts How Hydrocarbon Ice Formed in the Liquid Hydrocarbon Sea of Saturn's Lunar Titanium Can Look Like This Image by NASA, Posted January 8, 2013 REUTERS / NASA / JPL-Caltech / USGS / Handout  The map was based on radar, infrared and other data collected by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which studied Saturn and its moons from 2004 to 2017. Titan 3100 miles (5150 km) in diameter is the second largest Moon of the solar system behind Ganymede of Jupiter. It is larger than the planet Mercury.
Organic materials – carbon-based compounds critical for the nourishment of living organisms – play a leading role for Titan.
"Organic matter is very important to the life of Titan, which many of us think is likely to develop in the liquid aquatic ocean beneath Titan's ice crust," says planetary geologist Rosalie Lopez of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
"We think that organic materials can penetrate down into the liquid water of the ocean and this can provide the nutrients needed for life if it evolves there," added Lopez, who runs the research published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
On Earth, water flows from clouds and fills rivers, lakes and oceans. On Titan, clouds release hydrocarbons like methane and ethane – which are gases on Earth – in liquid form due to the cold climate of the moon.
Precipitation is observed throughout Titan, but the equatorial regions are drier than the poles, said study co-author Anesina Solomonidou, a research fellow at the European Space Agency.
The plains (covering 65% of the surface) and the dunes (covering 17% of the surface), composed of frozen pieces of methane and other hydrocarbons, dominate the middle latitudes and equatorial regions of Titan, respectively.
Titanium is the only object of the solar system, other than Earth, that has stable surface fluids, with methane-filled lakes and seas being major characteristics in its polar regions. The hilly and mountainous areas, which are considered to be exposed parts of the titanium crust on water ice, represent 14% of the surface.
"What is really fun to think about is whether there are any ways that these more complex organic substances can be lowered and mixed with water in the deep ice crust or deep underground ocean," says Michael Malaska, a scientist worker and co-author of JPL,
Noting that on Earth there is a bacterium that can only survive on a hydrocarbon called acetylene and water, Malaska asked, "Can something or something like this live in Titan deep in the Earth's crust or ocean? where the temperatures are a little warmer? "
The map was created for seven years, before the US Space Agency launches its Dragonfly mission to send a multi-rotor drone to study the chemistry and suitability of Titan. "Dragonfly" should reach Titan in 2034.
"This is not only scientifically important but also really cool – a drone flying around Titan," said Lopez. "It Will Be Really Exciting."
Report by Will Dunham; Editing by Tom Brown