Titan is Saturn’s largest moon – at 1,600 miles (2,574 kilometers) across it’s bigger than planet Mercury – and is the second-largest in the solar system. Scientists care about Titan because it’s the only moon in the solar system known to have clouds, surface liquids and a mysterious, thick atmosphere.
The cold atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, like Earth’s, but methane on Titan acts the way water vapor does on Earth, forming clouds and falling as rain and carving the surface with rivers. Organic chemicals, derived from methane, are present in Titan’s atmosphere, lakes and rivers and may offer clues about the origins of life.
“Titan has so much interesting activity – like flowing liquids and moving sand dunes – but to understand these processes it’s useful to know how the terrain slopes,” says Ralph Lorenz, of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., who led the map-design team. “It’s especially helpful to those studying hydrology and modeling Titan’s climate and weather, who need to know whether there is high ground or low ground driving their models.”
Titan’s thick haze scatters light in ways that make it very hard for remote cameras to “see” landscape shapes and shadows, the usual approach to measuring topography on planetary bodies. Virtually all the data we have on Titan comes from NASA’s Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft, which has flown past the moon nearly 100 times over the past decade. On many of those flybys, Cassini has used a radar imager, which can peer through the haze, and the radar data can be used to estimate the surface height.
"With this new topographic map, one of the most fascinating and dynamic worlds in our solar system now pops out in 3-D," says Steve Wall, the deputy lead of Cassini's radar team, based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "On Earth, rivers, volcanoes, and even weather are closely related to heights of surfaces – we're now eager to see what we can learn from them on Titan."
There are challenges, however. “Cassini isn’t orbiting Titan,” Lorenz says. “We have only imaged about half of Titan’s surface, and multiple ‘looks’ or special observations are needed to estimate the surface heights. If you divided Titan into 1-degree by 1-degree [latitude and longitude] squares, only 11 percent of those squares have topography data in them.”
Lorenz’s team used a mathematical process called splining – effectively using smooth curved surfaces to “join” the areas between grids of existing data. “You can take a spot where there is no data, look how close it is to the nearest data, and use various approaches of averaging and estimating to calculate your best guess,” he says. “If you pick a point, and all the nearby points are high altitude, you’d need a special reason for thinking that point would be lower. We’re mathematically papering over the gaps in our coverage.”
The estimations fit with current knowledge of the moon – that its polar regions are “lower” than areas around the equator, for example – but connecting those points allows scientists to add new layers to their studies of Titan’s surface, especially those modeling how and where Titan’s rivers flow, and the seasonal distribution of its methane rainfall. “The movement of sands and the flow of liquids are influenced by slopes, and mountains can trigger cloud formation and therefore rainfall. This global product now gives modelers a convenient description of this key factor in Titan’s dynamic climate system,” Lorenz says.
The most recent data used to compile the map is from 2012; Lorenz says it could be worth revising when the Cassini mission ends in 2017, when more data will have accumulated, filling some of the gaps in present coverage. “We felt we couldn’t wait and should release an interim product,” he says. “The community has been hoping to get this for a while. I think it will stimulate a lot of interesting work.”
The map, as well as a paper on the project (“A Global Topography Map of Titan”), appear in the journal Icarus and are available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0019103513001620.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and ASI, the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the US and several European countries.
The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit www.jhuapl.edu.
Michael Buckley | New
Applicability of dynamic facilitation theory to binary hard disk systems
08.12.2016 | Nagoya Institute of Technology
Will Earth still exist 5 billion years from now?
08.12.2016 | KU Leuven
In recent years, lasers with ultrashort pulses (USP) down to the femtosecond range have become established on an industrial scale. They could advance some applications with the much-lauded “cold ablation” – if that meant they would then achieve more throughput. A new generation of process engineering that will address this issue in particular will be discussed at the “4th UKP Workshop – Ultrafast Laser Technology” in April 2017.
Even back in the 1990s, scientists were comparing materials processing with nanosecond, picosecond and femtosesecond pulses. The result was surprising:...
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
08.12.2016 | Life Sciences
08.12.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
08.12.2016 | Materials Sciences