Saturday, August 22, 2009

Huygens discovered Titan

In 1655, which is why the probe is named after him. In those days, Titan was just a pinprick of light in a telescope. Huygens could not see Titan's clouds, pregnant with rain, or Titan's hillsides, sculpted by rushing liquids, but he had a fine imagination.
Titan's "water" is liquid methane, CH4, better known on Earth as natural gas. Regular Earth-water, H2O, would be frozen solid on Titan where the surface temperature is 290o F below zero. Methane, on the other hand, is a flowing liquid, of "a temper not liable to Frost."
Jonathan Lunine, a professor at the University of Arizona, is a member of the Huygens mission science team. He and his colleagues believe that Huygens landed in the Titan-equivalent of Arizona, a mostly-dry area with brief but intense wet seasons.
"The river channels near the Huygens probe look empty now," says Lunine, but liquids have been there recently, he believes. Little rocks strewn around the landing site are compelling: they're smooth and round like river rocks on Earth, and "they sit in little depressions dug, apparently, by rushing fluids."
The source of all this wetness might be rain. Titan's atmosphere is "humid," meaning rich in methane. No one knows how often it rains, "but when it does," says Lunine, "the amount of vapor in the atmosphere is many times that in Earth's atmosphere, so you could get very intense showers."
And maybe rainbows, too. "The ingredients you need for a rainbow are sunlight and raindrops. Titan has both," says atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley.
On Earth, rainbows form when sunlight bounces in and out of transparent water droplets. Each droplet acts like a prism, spreading light into the familiar spectrum of colors. On Titan, rainbows would form when sunlight bounces in and out of methane droplets, which, like water droplets, are transparent.

Rainbows on Titan

Saturn's moon Titan is wet, according to the ESA's Huygens probe, but Titan's "water" is not like Earth's.
When the European Space Agency's Huygens probe visited Saturn's moon Titan in January 2005, the probe parachuted through humid clouds. It photographed river channels and beaches and things that look like islands. Finally, descending through swirling fog, Huygens landed in mud.
To make a long story short, Titan is wet.
Christian Huygens wouldn't have been a bit surprised. In 1698, three hundred years before the Huygens probe left Earth, the Dutch astronomer wrote these words:
"Since 'tis certain that Earth and Jupiter have their Water and Clouds, there is no reason why the other Planets should be without them. I can't say that they are exactly of the same nature with our Water; but that they should be liquid their use requires, as their beauty does that they be clear. This Water of ours, in Jupiter or Saturn, would be frozen up instantly by reason of the vast distance of the Sun. Every Planet therefore must have its own Waters of such a temper not liable to Frost."