Titan is my favourite place in the Solar System, and for good reason too. Saturn’s largest and most famous moon has been known for centuries but, until the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens probe in 2004, its true nature had been hidden behind its thick clouds. It is precisely this dense atmosphere that makes Titan so unique, but that’s certainly not where the mysteries and peculiarities end. Today we’ll be exploring facts about Titan, the world that’s like Earth in so many ways, albeit with a completely different chemistry leading to some incredibly bizarre results.
Exploring beneath the Clouds of Titan
An artist’s impression of the Titanian sunset with Saturn in the background accompanied by 3 other moons.
Like the other gas giant planets, Saturn has an extensive system of natural satellites, also known as moons just like our own. While Earth only has one moon, Saturn has at least 62, in addition to its beautiful rings consisting of millions of icy particles and orbital debris. Most of the moons are very small, being only a few miles in diameter. Irregularly shaped, these moons are basically captured asteroids, taken in by the powerful gravitational forces that Saturn exerts on its cosmic surroundings. However, it’s that tiny point of light, visible through any reasonable telescope, that I’m interested in. This world is Titan.
Discovered by the Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens in 1655, Titan is one of the biggest moons in the solar system. Its diameter is almost half again as big as our own moon, and the world is slightly bigger than Mercury. However, the characteristics that make Titan unique are far more impressive, making it one of the most interesting entities in the solar system. Titan is the only world in the solar system which has liquid on the surface and the only moon known to have anything more than just a trace atmosphere.
Rather like Venus, Titan’s impenetrable atmosphere made it impossible to confirm what lay on the surface beneath. Despite decades of close observation, its true nature remained hidden from the world beneath a thick orange blanket some 370 miles (600 km) thick. The Cassini-Huygens mission that arrived at Saturn in 2004 was on a mission to uncover the mysteries of this peculiar alien world. After mapping Titan’s surface by radar, the Cassini-Huygens mission deployed the first (and so far, the only) landing mission in the outer solar system.