Cassini passed within 2,043 kilometers (1,270 miles) of the surface of Titan on Saturday, January 14, 2006 (Pacific Standard Time) in its eleventh targeted flyby (after a more distant flyby a day earlier.) The event heralds a new phase in NASA’s mission to the Saturnian system. For the next two and a half years, all close flybys by Cassini will be of Titan in an effort to answer the mysteries of this enigmatic moon. 13 targeted flybys are planned for this year.
Titan is the most Earth-like neighbor in our solar system with a similar predominance of nitrogen in its atmosphere, the presence of river bed and sand dunes, and other features that may be lakes, shorelines, and volcanoes. These similarities suggest that geological processes work very much the same on both Titan and the Earth, despite Titan’s rocks being made of water ice and its surface solvent being liquid methane compared to silicate rocks and liquid water on the Earth.
Until Cassini and the Huygens landing probe began exploring Titan in 2004, little was known about the moon because of its thick atmosphere. Huygens landed on the surface of Titan in January 2005 while Cassini repeatedly scanned the surface with its instruments using various wavelengths of light that can see through the haze. The flybys planned for this year will map Titan in unprecedented detail while various other experiments will try to explain phenomena like Titan’s magnetic field and interaction with the other members of the Saturnian system.