The best ever images of Titan are being beamed to Earth by the Cassini spacecraft through early this morning. Most of the pictures released by NASA so far have not been cleaned up, but reveal distinct divisions between dark and light areas, and areas were the darker material completely surrounds pockets of the light material. Scientists are working through the night to be ready for a press conference at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time regarding their analysis of these images.
Some scientists have theorized in the past that there might be liquid ethane lakes or seas on the Saturnian moon. So far it is unclear what we are looking at in these images. Xanadu is the light area, large as a continent on the earth and one of the first surface features of Titan to be captured by ground-based telescopes.
Cassini must observe Titan through a thick smog-like atmosphere. Since different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, pass differently through different materials, Cassini’s cameras can snap images at various wavelengths. This flexibility results in scores of images taken at different wavelengths that focus on the opaque haze above the rest of the atmosphere, the various levels of clouds in the atmosphere, and the surface.
Crater density appears to be low on the moon’s surface, unlike most of the moons in our solar system. This suggests that geological processes are at work on Titan that result in a much younger surface. Learning what these processes might be will require further research and more images. Cassini will flyby Titan many times, with some orbits bringing it closer to the surface than last night’s flyby.
Our robotic creations, this time Cassini, continue to explore areas of our universe that remain inaccessible to humans, allowing us to explore alien worlds from the comfort of our planet. Just yesterday, all we knew of Titan was its thick atmosphere and hints of surface features. This morning we are suddenly peering at strange landscapes and vistas never before seen by humanity.
The Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) website has much bigger images available for viewing. The imaging team’s center for operations is the University of Arizona.