A Color Map of Titan
Titanic jigsaw challenge: Piecing together a global color map of Saturn's largest moon
The team has compiled all the infrared images acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) during Cassini’s first seventy flybys of Titan. Fitting the pieces of the puzzle together is a painstaking task. The images must be corrected for differences in the illuminating conditions and each image is filtered on a pixel-by-pixel basis to screen out atmospheric distortions. Titan is veiled by a thick, opaque atmosphere composed mainly of nitrogen. It has clouds of methane and ethane and there is increasing evidence for methane rain. Only a few specific infrared wavelengths can penetrate the cloud and haze to provide a window down to Titan’s surface. An exotic frozen world with many Earth-like geological features has progressively emerged from darkness. The Earth-like features of Titan offer astrobiologists a unique opportunity to compare processes on the moon to those on our own planet. This practice of comparative planetology could help us better understand aspects of the Earth's climate and physical characteristics that allow life to thrive.
Stéphane Le Mouélic explains, “As Cassini is orbiting Saturn and not Titan, we can observe Titan only once a month on average. The surface of Titan is therefore revealed year after year, as pieces of the puzzle are progressively put together. Deriving a final map with no seams is challenging due to the effects of the atmosphere -- clouds, mist etc. -- and due to the changing geometries of observation between each flyby.”
Cassini has made 78 flybys of Titan since it arrived in orbit around Saturn in July 2004. A further 48 flybys are planned up to 2017. On flybys to date, VIMS has only had a few opportunities to observe Titan with a high spatial resolution. This means that the global map currently shows some regions of Titan in more detail than others.
In addition to improving the spatial coverage, future mapping will allow the observation of seasonal changes in both the atmosphere and the surface. As spring comes to the northern hemispheres of Saturn and its moons, some areas are only now coming into view.
“Lakes in Titan’s northern hemisphere were first discovered by the RADAR instrument in 2006, appearing as completely smooth areas. However, we had to wait up to June 2010 to obtain the first infrared images of the northern lakes, emerging progressively from the northern winter darkness,” says Le Mouélic. “The infrared observations provide the additional opportunity to investigate the composition of the liquids within the lakes area. Liquid ethane has already been identified by this means.”