Titan and the Lakefront?
Two days away from a year in orbit and Titan, the body fantastic of Saturn, exotic enough to intrigue yet familiar enough to offer the promise of comprehension, has yielded many a startling revelation.
We have lingered on regal Saturn, embraced by tendril shadows. At times, we have shot glances across its seemingly paper-thin rings to see looming Titan, sun-drenched Rhea, and the planet itself looking serene and magically ringless. We have beheld the shifting hazes which crown the north Titan pole, peered beyond the torturous surface of bright white Enceladus, and captured the portraits and balletic motions of sibling moons.
And we have witnessed sights of stark unsurpassed beauty, at once surreal, grand, heart-breakingly lovely and deceptively improbable, that life in orbit around the ringed planet has brought.
A handful of encounters with Titan have thus far shown us a remarkable body, with a colorful atmosphere and a variegated geography formed by tectonics, winds, few impacts, and running liquid. All this while, we have not seen a single clear sign of open bodies of liquid anywhere on the moon.
Darker than anything immediately around it, its outline is familiar ... like the fresh water shorelines of Earth we might have played on as children on a summer's day. Titan summer, however, is -300 degrees F, and it is not water filling this striking feature. Located in the cloudiest region of Titan and presumably the most likely place to find depressions filled by methane rains, this feature, the size of Lake Ontario, has set imaginations aflame. Could this be one of the fabled bodies of liquid hydrocarbons believed, prior to Cassini, to dot the Titan landscape? Or even perhaps a dried lake-bed, once filled to brimming with the Titan equivalent of paint thinner, and now caked with the solid residue left behind by methane evaporation?
Further examination and, hopefully, future opportunities to observe this fascinating feature should tell the tale.
In the meantime, we savor our good fortune to be coursing among the exotic inhabitants of the enchanting realm of Saturn.
You can listen to sounds from the microphone onboard the Huygens during its descent (wav file format, approx. 600 kB each) at the European Space Agency's "Sounds of an Alien World site" at: http://www.esa.int/esaMI/Cassini-Huygens/SEM85Q71Y3E_0.html.
An animation tracking the landing of the Huygens probe on Titan is available from NASA at: http://www.nasaimages.org/luna/servlet/detail/NVA2~1~1~2348~102521:Tracking-Huygens-Animation