Infrared images peek through the clouds of Saturn's mysterious moon Titan
Saturn's moon Titan is one of the most interesting bodies in the solar system – but not in the visible spectrum. Under normal lighting conditions, the moon just looks like a dull, featureless yellow ball, thanks to a soupy atmosphere. Now, using 13 years' worth of infrared data from Cassini, astronomers have stitched together the clearest images yet of Titan's surface.
Titan is a bizarre world, hosting some striking similarities to Earth but with distinct differences. Both have thick nitrogen-rich atmospheres, tectonic activity, liquid oceans, rivers and lakes on the surface, a consistent "sea level," and possibly even ingredients for life. But don't pack your bags just yet: Titan's fizzy oceans are filled with liquid methane, its atmosphere is devoid of oxygen, static electricity might make its sand grains extremely clingy, and any life might not even be water-based like us.
All of this makes Titan a fascinating point of interest for scientists – if we could just peer beneath the clouds. While orbiting Saturn, Cassini performed several flybys of the moon, mapping its surface in detail with radar and infrared scans. Unfortunately, the mosaic images put together from these often had jarring seams, as different sections were imaged at different resolutions, lighting and atmospheric conditions.
These new images are the result of detailed analyses of the data and band-ratio processing to remove those seams and highlight geographic features on the surface. That processing creates three different color channels – red, green and blue – by comparing the brightness ratio at two different wavelengths of the same spot. In doing so, the dune fields around the equator appear as a flat brown color, while the blue and purple areas may be rich in ice.
The team says this might be our best view of Titan for a while yet, but other missions are currently being proposed to swoop in for an even closer look. The Dragonfly quadcopter and a strange balloon/hang glider concept could be soaring through the moon's skies, while a submarine might eventually plumb the depths of its methane oceans.