Head-Scratching Images of Titan

Scientists admitted this morning that they are stumped by the best-ever images of the Saturnian moon Titan. At a 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time press conference this morning, team members of the Cassini/Huygens mission tried their best to avoid speculating about the nature of the terrain visible in images, with varying degrees of success.

The tantalizing images show clear boundaries between light and dark areas, few if any impact craters, linear features and streaks on the surface, and a few probable clouds. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini Imaging Team Leader, described some of the linear features as “meandering”, a term often used to describe one type of river on the Earth, but she later noted that she was not a geologist and it was simply too soon to know for sure exactly what these images showed.

The difficulty in interpreting the images comes from the fact that there are no shadows present to get a sense of topography. The scientists speculated that this could mean there is low relief in the terrain. Cassini also used radar during this flyby, but the data was still being analyzed at the time of the press conference. Another press conference will be held tomorrow morning at the same time to discuss the radar data.

The lack of round surface features and obvious impact craters also suggests that the moon experienced recent resurfacing through tectonic or volcanic activity. Another possibility is that the craters exist but are filled up with hydrocarbons falling from the active atmosphere or slushy ice oozing up through cracks in the moon’s surface.

The scientists at the press conference were obviously very excited, but appeared to be as frustrated as the reporters present, who tried to pry more speculative explanations for the strange features in the Titan images from the mission team. Team members stated that answers would require putting together all the evidence from the various instruments aboard Cassini and the Huygens probe over the next few years. The lack of definitive explanations hint at just how strange and alien Titan really is, and how exciting science can be.