When you think of the moon, you may think of a rocky, crater-like bare surface with nothing to do but wander into your rover and collect rocks. While the moon on Earth is certainly the embodiment of the dead world, there are more than 200 moons in our solar system orbiting planets and asteroids. Fortunately for human scientists, the universe is too creative to make all moons static like ours.
Using recently analyzed data from NASA's Cassini mission, astronomers this week published a study in Nature Astronomy on a new map of the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. A first-of-its-kind map reveals a world that looks similar to Earth – specifically, Titan is filled with mountains, plains, valleys, craters and lakes. This makes it unlike anywhere else in the solar system except the Earth. It is intriguing that even the atmosphere of Titan is similar to the atmosphere of Earth in its ancient times.
"Titanium has an active methane-based hydrological cycle that has formed a complex geological landscape, making its surface one of the most diverse geologically diverse solar systems," the study authors noted in the paper. "Despite the differences in materials, temperatures, and gravitational fields between Earth and Titan, many of their surface characteristics are similar and can be interpreted as products of the same geological processes."
While the researchers already had an idea of the diverse terrain of the moon, the new analysis and map revealed some surprises.
"I was a little surprised that the planes made more of Titan than I thought," Rosalie Lopez, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and
in particular, the map reveals that the moon's surface represents two-thirds of the flat plains, 1
"Titan has winds to make wide plains, it has rain, there are lakes, seas, rivers, so this is really a different moon from the usual barbell surface you see a lot," Lopez adds.
Titan's resemblance to Earth makes the moon a place to find microbial life.
"It's one of the places in the solar system where it's like [ly] that life could have evolved because we have the combination of many organic materials." , adds Lopez.
Unfortunately, we'll probably have to wait another two decades to find out. NASA plans to send a drone to Titan on the Dragons mission by 2034, which will fly around the surface and study the moon in detail. Because Titan has an atmosphere a little thicker than Earth's, and temperatures that are cold but not frigid, a rotor-based drone can easily buzz around the bustling moon.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, researchers will not only reflect on the diversity of the lunar terrain, but also where different entities are located. Most of the Moon's methane lakes are located near its north pole, which may be the result of Saturn's elliptical orbit around the sun, causing longer summers in the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere.
Tracy Greg, a planetary geologist at Buffalo University in New York, told Nature that this map would help researchers answer important questions about Titan. "One is: what kinds of changes has Titan undergone, which are seasonal, and what changes can be caused by Titan's internal [heat]?", She says.
Lopez said that Titan would qualify as a planet in its own right if it was not parked in orbit around Saturn.
"Titan is a very different moon, a very different world, and if it were not in orbit around Saturn we would say that it is a planet because it has the second densest atmosphere as a solid in the solar system. Venus is first, Titan, second, Earth, third, ”Lopez said.
"I think as we study more Titan we will be able to understand a lot more about what led to the evolution of a completely different moon," she added.