Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan, has long intrigued scientists because it is the only other place besides Earth known to have liquid on its surface.
With the help of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been monitoring Saturn’s system since 2004, the space agency was able to create the first topographic map of Titian, which will help scientists learn more about one of the most Earth-like worlds in our solar system.
Titan is covered with rivers and seas. Unlike our Earth, however, these free-flowing regions are filled with liquid hydrocarbons, like methane, instead of water. The methane on Titan acts like water vapor on Earth. It forms clouds and produces rain that falls.
Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere previously made it impossible to get up-close images of the orb with telescopes. The decade-old Cassini spacecraft was able to penetrate Titan’s thick clouds and collect atmospheric data using its advanced radar system.
In nearly 100 flybys of Titan over the last decade, Cassini has gathered information about the height of topographic features on Titian’s surface. Surface height is related to things like rivers and lakes.
The scientists then used a mathematical trick called splining to build the 3-D maps. The process “uses smooth curved surfaces to ‘join’ the areas between grids of existing topography profiles obtained by Cassini’s radar instrument,” NASA said in statement.
So far, Cassini has only imaged half of Titan’s surface, NASA said, so scientists have to fill in the gaps in data for surface height using educated guesses. For a region with no data, scientists will generally look to nearby spots of known height and mimic that altitude.
While these maps are still in their early, working phase, scientists hope to have a more complete picture of Titan’s surface when the Cassini mission ends in 2017.
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