Setting Foot on Titan

Titan has held a special place in the hearts and minds of Sci-Fi authors for decades. Initially it was because the thick, opaque atmosphere made Titan a moon on mystery. No one knew what might be hidden on the surface. It seemed like the kind of place where anything could happen.

Unraveling Titan’s mysteries has only increased this large moon’s allure. Chemically speaking, Titan couldn’t be more alien to us, yet it looks eerily familiar. The lakes and rivers, mostly situated in the northern hemisphere, bear an uncanny resemblance to features seen on Earth.

A world both familiar yet alien: sounds like the perfect setting for a science fiction adventure to me. So what would it be like to set foot on the surface of Titan? In 2005, the Huygens probe (a joint mission by NASA and ESA) landed on the surface of Titan, collecting data all the way through its descent and for about 90 minutes after touchdown.

Based on measurements by two impact penetrometers, it seems Huygens landed on a surface of hardened crust atop a layer of softer, perhaps moister material. Scientists at the time compared it to crème brûlée. Of course, this crème brûlée is infused with methane, ethane, butane, etc; so it probably doesn’t taste very good.

Assuming the Huygens landing site is typical of surface conditions in general (which it may or may not be), walking on Titan might feel a little like slogging through mud. The hardened upper crust is probably not thick enough to support your weight, even in the reduced gravity.

Regarding weather, it doesn’t so much rain on Titan as drizzle. Picture a gloomy, overcast day here on Earth with the air heavily saturated by mist. Now drop the temperature to -180 C (-290 F), turn the clouds from grey to dull orange, and change the misty, drizzly precipitation from water to liquid methane. That would be normal weather conditions on Titan.

There is some evidence of heavier rainstorms from time to time, perhaps heavy enough to cause flash flooding, but this appears to be rare compared to the amount of rain and flooding we get here on Earth. I wouldn’t worry too much about this.

Today’s post marks the end of our month-long visit to Saturn and its moons. As the 2015 Mission to the Solar System continues, we can now turn our attention to one of the strangest, most enigmatic planets in the Solar System: Uranus.

Links

Titan Unveiled: Saturn’s Mysterious Moon Explored by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitten.

Rare Rains on Titan from Astrobiology Magazine.

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