When you think of a moon, you might think of a rocky, crater-filled barren surface with little to do except wander around in your rover and collect rocks. Although the Earth's moon is truly the symbol of a dead world, there are more than 200 moons in our solar system orbiting planets and asteroids. Fortunately for human scientists, the universe is far too creative to make all moons as static as ours.
Using newly-analyzed data from NASA's Cassini mission, astronomers published a study in Nature Astronomy this week on a new map of the surface of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. The first map reveals a world similar to the earth – specifically, Titan is full of mountains, plains, valleys, craters and lakes. This makes it unlike anywhere else in the solar system, except Earth. Exciting, even Titan's atmosphere resembles the earth's atmosphere during its ancient days.
"Titan has an active methane-based hydrological cycle that has shaped a complex geological landscape, making the surface one of the most geologically diverse in the solar system," the study's author states in the paper. "Despite the differences in materials, temperatures and gravitational fields between Earth and Titan, many of their surface properties are similar and can be interpreted as products of the same geological processes."
While researchers already had insight into the lunar terrain, the new analysis and map revealed some surprises.
"I was a little surprised that plains were more of Titan than I thought," Rosaly Lopes, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and co-author of the study, told Salon.
The map specifically reveals that the lunar surface is two-thirds of flat plains, 1
"Titan has winds to make widespread plains, it has rain, it has lakes, oceans, rivers, so it's a really different moon than the usual crater surface that you see a lot of," Lopes added.
Titan's diversity and similarities to Earth make the moon a place to find microbial life.
"It's one of those places in the solar system where it's like [ly] that life may have evolved, because we have a combination of many organic materials," added Lopes.
Unfortunately, we probably have to wait another two decades NASA plans to send a drone to the Titan on the Dragonfly mission in 2034, which will fly around the surface and study the moon in detail, since the Titan has a slightly thicker atmosphere than the Earth, and temperatures that are cold but not weak, a rotor-based drone can easily be lashed around the lively moon.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, scientists will not only ponder the diversity of the lunar terrain, but also where the various formations are located. is located near its north pole, which may be a result of Saturn's elliptical orbit around the sun, causing longer summers in the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere.
Tracy Gregg, A planetary geologist at the University of Buffalo in New York told nature that this map helps scientists answer important questions about Titan. "One is: what kind of changes has Titan undergone that are seasonal, and what kind of changes can be driven by the internal [heat] of Titan?" She says.
Lopes 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 was not in orbit around Saturn, we would say that it is a planet because it has the second densest atmosphere as a solid body in the solar system. Venus is first, Titan, second, Earth, third, "said Lopes.
" I think as we study Titan more we will be able to find out much more about what has led to the evolution of the very different moon, "She admitted.