Astronomers have generated the first complete full-color map of the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan – a frozen place where liquid methane rains from the sky, and where scientists have identified a staggering potpourri of characteristics similar those seen on Earth.
Scientists from the University of Nantes in France compiled the map using images taken by NASA’s powerful Cassini spacecraft, which has circled around Saturn since 2004, during its first 70 passes by Titan. Cassini’s sensors are equipped with the ability to pick up images through Titan’s thick atmosphere and methane clouds, and reveal its multifarious terrain.
After rigorously combining pictures that were captured over six years by a NASA spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, astronomers have produced a complete surface map of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, that reveals some unexpected Earth-like features in its terrain.
Astronomers are especially interested in Titan because of its sand dunes, mountains, valleys and lakes, and its puzzling atmospheric conditions. Titan is a land of hydrocarbons, such as the methane that most researchers believe rains down onto Titan’s surface, fills its lakes and gathers in its clouds.
The Cassini spacecraft was finished being built in 1997 and is expected to make dozens more flybys of Titan before its orbital mission at Saturn comes to a close in 2017.
The group of astronomers needed to make strenuous pixel-by-pixel analyses of each image because the observations of Titan over six years occurred from different distances. The exhausting process required the scientists to normalize the size of the images to the same scale, as well as compensate for variance in light and contrast, and screen out atmospheric distortions.