With the sun now shining down over the north pole of Saturn’s moon Titan, a little luck with the weather, and trajectories that put the spacecraft into optimal viewing positions, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has obtained new pictures of the liquid methane and ethane seas and lakes that reside near Titan’s north pole. The images reveal new clues about how the lakes formed and about Titan’s Earth-like “hydrologic” cycle, which involves hydrocarbons rather than water.
The new images are available online at: http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/multimedia/index.html .
While there is one large lake and a few smaller ones near Titan’s south pole, almost all of Titan’s lakes appear near the moon’s north pole. Cassini scientists have been able to study much of the terrain with radar, which can penetrate beneath Titan’s clouds and thick haze. And until now, Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and imaging science subsystem had only been able to capture distant, oblique or partial views of this area.
Several factors combined recently to give these instruments great observing opportunities. Two recent flybys provided better viewing geometry. Sunlight has begun to pierce the winter darkness that shrouded Titan’s north pole at Cassini’s arrival in the Saturn system nine years ago. A thick cap of haze that once hung over the north pole has also dissipated as northern summer approaches. And Titan’s beautiful, nearly cloudless, rain-free weather continued during Cassini’s flybys this past summer.
The images are mosaics in infrared light based on data obtained during flybys of Titan on July 10, July 26, and Sept. 12, 2013. The colorized mosaic from the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, which maps infrared colors onto the visible-color spectrum, reveals differences in the composition of material around the lakes. The data suggest parts of Titan’s lakes and seas may have evaporated and left behind the Titan equivalent of Earth’s salt flats. Only at Titan, the evaporated material is thought to be organic chemicals originally from Titan’s haze particles that once dissolved in liquid methane. They appear orange in this image against the greenish backdrop of Titan’s typical bedrock of water ice.