Perfect Landing Spot for Spacecraft on Titan Identified

Saturn’s moon Titan is one of the most interesting celestial bodies in the outer solar system. It’s the only moon with a dense atmosphere, and the surface is covered with lakes of liquid hydrocarbons. In order to send a spacecraft millions of miles into the outer solar system, you first need to be very sure it’s going to survive. Using new data from the Cassini probe, scientists have identified a potential landing zone on Titan — those hydrocarbon lakes.

Titan is of particular interest to researchers because of its complex atmosphere, which is believed to have the necessary ingredients to synthesize complex organic compounds. That could lead to the development of life. But it would not be life as we know it, with lakes of methane and a surface temperature of -179 degrees Celsius. This thick atmosphere is also what makes a potential landing on Titan so difficult. The organonitrogen haze gives the moon a uniform light brown color, completely obscuring the surface. Luckily, the Cassini probe has been able to probe Titan with radar during its time orbiting Saturn.

Titan has many pools of liquid methane and ethane on its surface, but the new analysis focuses on three of the largest, which are near the moon’s northern polar region. The lakes — Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare, and Punga Mare — are huge even by the standards of water lakes here on Earth. Ligeia Mare, the second largest of the three, has a greater volume than Lake Superior. This one vat of hydrocarbons could hold more energy than all of Earth’s oil reserves. This is more of a scientific curiosity than a potential source of energy, as there’s no economical way to transport it here.

Titan’s northern lakes.

There has been a great deal of debate over what the conditions on the surface of these lakes might be. A study several years ago suggested that wave activity on the surface was great enough to periodically cover an island in Ligeia Mare. However, researchers using a technique called radar statistical reconnaissance contend that the lakes are positively placid. At the time of measurement, waves on the surface of these three lakes averaged about 1 centimeter in height and 20 centimeters long. It would be very easy for something on the surface to remain upright in that.

Cassini is reaching the end of its mission around Saturn. In just a few months, it will spiral down into the clouds of Saturn, sending back data for as long as possible. It’s unclear when NASA or some other space agency will return to Saturn. But they might be able to drop a probe on Titan, confident that it will float calmly on the hydrocarbon lakes.


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