Saturn might have gotten most of the attention this time around, but probing eyes are now turning to its moon Titan, whose liquid-hydrocarbon seas could mean a smooth surface for future probes.
Titan is the only other celestial object besides our planet known to have stable liquid bodies (there are suspicions about Enceladus having liquid seas beneath its frozen crust, but scientists won’t know the answer until they find some way to probe through all that ice). Mythically named lakes Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare and Punga Mare are the largest on the moon’s northern hemisphere and have nearly imperceptible waves, which means that the winds are also behaving. Minimal wind is exactly what you want when you’re looking to land expensive and highly sensitive equipment for scientific research.
The Saturnian moon may be swimming with seas, but don’t expect to find fish—or anything remotely resembling aquatic life that exists in our oceans. Whether there is actually a Kraken in Kraken Mare remains to be seen. Titan’s hydrocarbon-based weather system means its tranquil waters are really ethane and methane, which also rain down from the skies. They are still a liquid asset to science for their potential to reveal processes that organic molecules may have undergone billions of years ago, when Earth was an orb of primordial ooze.
"The atmosphere of Titan is very complex, and it does synthesize complex organic molecules—the bricks of life," said Cyril Grima, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute of Geophysics who also led a recent study published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters exploring wave activity on the moon. "It may act as a laboratory of sorts, where you can see how basic molecules can be transformed into more complex molecules that could eventually lead to life."
We can only imagine what kind of life that could be if it thrives in liquid methane.
Grima’s research team determined the behavior of waves on Titan by analyzing radar observations transmitted by Cassini to calculate wave dimensions, especially for those three lakes whose monstrous names only sound like they forecast endless storms. While summer on Titan was thought to be its windy season, the study indicated otherwise. Suggested constraints in the size and movement of waves are also starting to reverse any fears that a spacecraft would end up being sucked in by alien currents.
"From the results, it looks like we are right near the threshold for wave generation, where patches of the sea are smooth and [other] patches are rough," said Alex Hayes, Cornell assistant professor of astronomy and co-author of the study.
While there are no official plans to send anything to Titan yet, its unusually zen waves could mean a mission using an exploratory boat or even a space submarine.