Cassini conducts slingshot around Saturn moon Titan

Cassini is set to plunge into the planet.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Sep 12, 2017
Saturn's large moon Titan, considered by some scientists as an analogue of early Earth and therefore possibly habitable for microbial life, always played a central role in NASA/ESA's Cassini mission.

In 2005, the Huygens lander was dropped onto Titan's surface, where its six instruments collected data and images about the exotic moon and its hazy atmosphere.

The first probe to ever land on a satellite of another planet, Huygens found Titan to have a mountainous reddish surface, a lake bed filled with dry pebbles, and a hydrologic cycle complete with rain of liquid methane and ethane rather than water.

Later studies of Titan by Cassini's radar instruments revealed the large moon to have lakes of methane and ethane. Because methane breaks down rapidly, scientists remain puzzled as to how it stays on Titan's surface for long periods of time.

These hydrocarbons could provide the energy needed to fuel exotic life forms, or they could be byproducts of such life forms.

While mountains and dunes on Titan's surface resemble terrains found on Earth, scientists believe they contain ice pebbles made up of hydrocarbons.

The large moon may also have a subsurface ocean composed of liquid water and ammonia. This adds Titan to the growing list of solar system worlds with underground oceans that could potentially host microbial life, including fellow Saturn moon Enceladus, Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede, dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, and Neptune's moon Triton.

"We now know that there is another world in the solar system that has abundant liquids and organics, and therefore harbors the potential for life," noted Sarah Horst of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

On Monday, September 11, the spacecraft conducted a slingshot around Titan designed to plunge it into Saturn's atmosphere on Friday, September 15, where it will be destroyed.

"With that final kiss goodbye from Titan, we are going so deep into Saturn's atmosphere that the spacecraft is not going to have any chance to come back out," said Cassini project manager Earl Maize.

Because of Titan's similarity to Earth, some scientists, such as Ralph Lorenz, also of Johns Hopkins University, believe it will be the most ideal solar system world for humans to colonize after Mars.

Although several followup probes to Titan are under discussion, none are being planned for the immediate future.


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