WASHINGTON – Scientists on Monday unveiled the first global geological map of the moon of Saturn's Titan, including vast plains and dunes of frozen organic material and lakes of liquid methane, illuminating an exotic world that is considered a strong candidate for life beyond Earth.
The map was based on radar, infrared and other data collected by the NASA Cassini spacecraft, which was studied by Saturn and its satellites from 2004 to 2017. Having a diameter of 3200 miles (5150 km), titanium is the second largest moon in the solar system after Ganymede Jupiter. It is more than the planet Mercury.
Organic materials — carbon-based compounds necessary for the development of living organisms — play a leading role on Titanium.
“Organic matter is very important for life on Titan, which many of us would probably have developed in the liquid ocean under Titan’s icy crust,” said planetary geologist Rosalie Lopez from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
“We think that organic materials can penetrate the ocean of liquid water, and this can provide the nutrients necessary for life if they evolve there,” added Lopez, who led the study published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
On Earth, water pours out of the clouds and fills rivers, lakes and oceans. On Titan, clouds spew hydrocarbons such as methane and ethane, which are gases on Earth, in liquid form due to the cold climate of the moon.
According to research co-author Anesina Solomonidou, a researcher at the European Space Agency, there are rains everywhere on Titan, but the equatorial regions are drier than the poles.
Plains (covering 65 percent of the surface) and dunes (covering 17 percent of the surface), consisting of frozen pieces of methane and other hydrocarbons, dominate the mid-latitudes of Titan and the equatorial regions, respectively.
Titanium is the only object of the solar system, besides the Earth, which boasts stable liquids on the surface, and lakes and seas filled with methane are the main objects in its polar regions. Hilly and mountainous areas, which are believed to represent open areas of Titan's crust from water ice, make up 14 percent of the surface.
“What is really interesting to think about is whether there are any ways that these more complex organics can mix with water in the deep ice crust or deep underground ocean,” said Michael Malaska, a JPL scientist and co-author of the study.
Noting that there is a bacterium on Earth that can only survive on a hydrocarbon called acetylene and water, Malaska asked: “Can he or something like that live on Titan in the depths of the crust or ocean, where the temperature is a little warmer?”
The map was created seven years before the US space agency plans to launch the Dragonfly mission to send a multi-rotor drone to study the chemical composition and suitability of Titan for life. Dragonfly must reach Titan in 2034.
“This is not only scientifically important, but really cool – a drone flying on Titan,” said Lopez. “It will be really exciting.”