Most of the talk and the ideas surrounding robotic and human space exploration, especially within the solar system usually revolves around Earth’s moon or Mars. For obvious reasons. The Moon and Mars are far closer and seemingly more hospitable to exploration and settlement. But that’s what we understand today. There’s more to what we can discover and explore than what we see in the local neighborhood. In fact, as we speak, other worlds right here in our solar system are being explored by advanced probes and orbiters! Surprising and fascinating things are being discovered – things that may open up a wide array of opportunities for future space exploration and colonization for intrepid human space explorers!
One of the most fascinating things we are doing now is exploring Titan, one of Saturn’s most mysterious moons. Until now Titan had always seemed impenetrable and mysterious to observers and scientists, much like Venus once was in the past. Swaddled in thick bands of orange clouds and haze, like Venus, most of its planetary features were closed to observation. The Cassini/Huygen’s probe will be the first to to probe Titan on the ground. Cassini sends informations to scientists about Titan and one of the amazing things about Titan is that it has a vast network of lakes, greater than even the Great Lakes. We now have hi-res photos of Titan’s surface. This is an important step in space exploration.
The Cassini/Huygens probe has far better cameras than any of the outer space probes before it, such as the Voyager probes. Titan is shrouded in a thick, orange/yellowish haze which will make it harder to see through its atmosphere. More powerful cameras will be needed in the future for more exploration. After what has been discovered by the Cassini probe and from former probes before it, scientists think it is possible that Titan has torrential methane rains and ice everywhere. Ice on Titan takes the place of and behaves like rock on Earth. In fact it could be called the ice version of Mars.
The Huygens probe detached from Cassini after four years and began a three week descent to Titan’s surface. The probe had a very rough ride down but entered Titan’s atmosphere and touched ground successfully and sent back amazing data on the planet! There is so much more to discover! One thing that scientists have found is that Titan’s atmosphere is filled with photochemical smog, or a haze. This makes it difficult to explore its features in detail right now. What scientists are happy about is that Titan isn’t a dead moon, unlike many of Saturn’s other moons. There are very few craters on the surface so far as we know which indicates geologic activity. One of the very first photos sent back from Huygens was a picture of an ice filled, rocky land pebbled with ice rocks. Photos also brought back images that could be mapped out and scientists found drainage channels, small rivers flowing off of ice hills into flat regions, or dried up lake beds and a vast network of methane lakes. These rivers and lakes come from the methane rains that fall into these rivers and channels. Titan is so cold that methane and ethane on this planet is found in liquid form instead of water and rock. It also has icy sands on its surface and a nitrogen atmosphere. An ice version of Mars, indeed. But even more frigid. At the bottom of some of the river channels scientists even saw what looked like a shoreline.
All in all, it would probably be over a century before humans could ever conceive of the technology needed to land on and explore Titan but the sending of robotic scouts and getting this kind of preliminary climate and geological information is the first step in educating ourselves about the places in our own solar system and creating the advancements in technology needed to make our hope of human exploration to other planets a reality.