Scientists have collected the first global geological map of Titan, one of Saturn's main moons, thanks to data from Hyugen's spacecraft – launched in 1997 with the Cassini mission. In addition to being the only moon in the solar system with clouds and a dense atmosphere of nitrogen and methane, evidence suggests that Titan is covered with organic matter.
According to the study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, Cassini's data for infrared and radar instruments have managed to remove the dense layers of the atmosphere, which obscures a greater view of the moon. With this information, the researchers reconstructed and mapped the surface of the Titan and presented six main geological forms, their age, distribution and details of the poles.
Titanium has floating bodies on its surface, similar to those on earth, but rivers, lakes and seas are made of liquid ethane and methane. These compounds form clouds and rain from the sky. This methane cycle is the driving force behind Titan's geology – at the poles, the moisture helps methane stay in its liquid state. Around the equator, a drier climate makes the carved sand dunes remain intact.
In other words, we find different geological formations according to latitude. But there is a more prominent feature around the entire moon: the presence of organic plains.
Rosaly Lopes, author of the study and senior scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains that "the strong longitudinal dependence of various entities provides clues to the methane cycle's functioning," though she acknowledges that mysteries still exist. "For example, most of the surface is covered with organic materials, especially the plains (65%) and dunes (17%). These are, we believe, formed from organic materials that fall from the atmosphere and are moved by the wind. So this tells us that the winds were very important for shaping the Titan's surface. "
This finding that much of Titan is covered with organic plains was a surprise to scientists. Because, according to Lope's, people "tend to know and study the Titan's most" interesting "resources, such as lakes (which only cover 1.5% of the surface)."
Valuable information for the Dragonfly mission
In 2026, NASA will send the Dragonfly mission to explore Titan from 2034. The spacecraft's ultimate goal is to visit a battle crater where life-critical ingredients are believed to have been mixed when any space object hit the ground earlier. maybe tens of thousands of years ago.
This new lunar map can help provide context for everything Dragonfly can discover, according to Lopes. “We still have a lot of questions about Titan. For me, the most interesting ones are related to the ability to live, says the researcher, who expects many answers about composition and potentially common when Dragonfly displays data directly from Titan's surface. For her, "the fact that we have so much organic material on Titan has important consequences for life."
Lopes and his team work with models of Titan's landscaping to understand how organic matter moves across the surface and where and how it can penetrate the icing. "Organic products that reach the ocean, the most likely inhabited environment, are essential to be orbiting," the researcher concludes.