January 17, 2005

Titan Revealed

After seven long years, saddled to the Cassini spacecraft, the Huygens probe finally arrived at its destination, Titan. This mysterious moon of Saturn has intrigued astronomers and scientists, ever since it was first discovered by Christiaan Huygens in 1655.

Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System. It is also larger than the planets Mercury and Pluto, but by definition is labelled a "moon", because it orbits a planet, rather than the Sun.

Titan is unique, because it is the only moon to have a dense atmosphere, mostly formed from Nitrogen, but also Methane and other organic compounds. These compounds are the stuff that life is made of, and so it has been often touted that Titan is a very similar model to primordial Earth.

Due to the density of the atmosphere, it has been impossible for scientists to peer through at the landscape below. However, that has all changed dramatically with the arrival of Huygens, and the glorious data and images the European-built probe has sent to us this week.

As Huygens descended through the orange atmosphere, the intriguing alien landscape revealed itself. There is something mystical in being able to witness a scene that has never been observed by humans before. What is particularly exciting, is that these images appear to show oceans, rivers and lakes; familiar geographical features yet to be found anywhere else. However, these oceans and rivers are not made up of water, but perhaps liquid Methane or Ethane. Huygens should give answers to these questions, as the data is poured over by scientists.

What does it all mean to us? Well, the information that may be learned from Titan, could reveal hints to the extent in which the chemical building blocks of life are spread throughout the universe. If this is confirmed, then it could enhance the argument that we may not be alone.

To stare at photographs of rocks, hills and distant horizons on other worlds, such as on Mars and Titan, is an intoxicating glimpse of what lies ahead for human exploration.

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