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Saturn's moon Titan. Credit: NASA/JPLblockquote>

Aug 01, 2007

Titan Tells Strange Tales - Part One

Cassini's close flyby of Saturn's largest moon reveals features that continue to baffle mission scientists.

The Cassini-Huygens mission was launched October 15, 1997 on a seven-year voyage to Saturn and its largest moon, Titan. Few remember the furor generated by the spacecraft's power source, 33 kilograms of plutonium. Environmental groups and the ACLU attempted to have the liftoff canceled because an explosion of the Titan IV-B Centaur launch vehicle would have scattered the highly toxic compound over populated regions in Florida near Cape Canaveral.

With the Huygens landing vehicle attached, Cassini was the largest interplanetary space probe ever launched. It is 6.7 meters high, four meters wide and weighs 5712 kilograms. Because it was designed to remain in orbit around Saturn for almost five years, NASA determined that plutonium was the only sufficiently long-lasting material with enough energy per cubic centimeter so that the cameras, rocket engines and gyroscopes could remain active for all that time. Fortunately for all concerned, there was no accident on launch day and Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since June 30, 2004.

On December 24, 2004, the Huygens lander separated from Cassini and began a twenty-day journey to Titan. As it entered the atmosphere, Huygens reached a speed of nearly 20,000 kilometers per hour relative to the surface of the moon. Parachutes kept the probe stable long enough for it to slow down and begin a two and a half hour descent to the frozen surface. The first pictures from Huygens revealed a surface covered with pebbles suspended in an icy slush. NASA scientists speculate that Titan was cold enough for hydrocarbon compounds to precipitate and "rain down" in the form of liquid methane, perhaps collecting in huge lakes of liquefied natural gas

"The rain on Titan is just a slight drizzle, but it rains all the time, day in, day out. It makes the ground wet and muddy with liquid methane. This is why the Huygens probe landed with a splat. It landed in methane mud," said Christopher McKay, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.

As a previous Thunderbolts Picture of the Day pointed out, however, the dark areas in the radar images show the usual circular scalloped edges, typical of cathode arc machining of a surface. These can be compared directly to the scalloped scarring on Jupiter's moon Io, which also display flat, melted floor depressions. Electrical theorist Wal Thornhill writes: "Such floors would be expected to give a dark radar return. The fact that the 'lakes' have only been discovered in the polar region and are associated with electrical 'rilles' and fulguritic 'dunes' also suggests an electrical origin through powerful auroral currents in the past."

If Titan exhibits features that compare to other bodies in the solar system that are far hotter and far more "geologically" active, would that indicate this supposedly cryogenic world is more like incandescent Venus than a frozen ball of ice? Cassini has discovered water jets erupting from the surface of Enceladus and other streams of charged particles being emitted from Dione and Tethys. Will Titan eventually be included with this group of electrically active bodies? Electricity is the only known force that can give rise to all of the phenomena that we observe on planetary bodies. Indeed, objects in space that have been imaged by ground-based observatories or by space-borne science platforms demonstrate the irrefutable nature of that fact.

In part two we will examine several other discoveries that give Titan a place among the strangest of the objects in the solar system.

By Stephen Smith

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David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Steve Smith, Mel Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott, Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman
  WEBMASTER: Brian Talbott

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