Dive into Titan’s thick atmosphere and find out what a strange place it is, adapted from NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio. With its clouds, rain cycle, and giant lakes, Saturn’s large moon Titan is a surprisingly Earthlike place. But unlike on Earth, Titan’s surface is far too cold for liquid water - instead, Titan’s clouds, rain, and lakes consist of liquid hydrocarbons like methane and ethane (which exist as gases here on Earth). When these hydrocarbons evaporate and encounter ultraviolet radiation in Titan’s upper atmosphere, some of the molecules are broken apart and reassembled into longer hydrocarbons like ethylene and propane.
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft first revealed the presence of several species of atmospheric hydrocarbons when it flew by Titan in 1980, but one molecule was curiously missing - propylene, the main ingredient in plastic number 5. Now, thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists have detected propylene on Titan for the first time, solving a long-standing mystery about the solar system’s most Earthlike moon.
The rings of Saturn have puzzled astronomers since Galileo Galilei discovered them with his telescope in 1610. Detailed study by the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft in the 1980s only increased the mystery.
There are billions of ring particles in the entire ring system. The ring particle sizes range from tiny, dust-sized icy grains to a few particles as large as mountains. Two tiny moons orbit in gaps (Encke and Keeler gaps) in the rings and keep the gaps open. Other particles (10s to 100s of meters) are too tiny to see, but create propeller-shaped objects in the rings that let us know they are there. The rings are believed to be pieces of comets, asteroids or shattered moons that broke up before they reached the planet. Each ring orbits at a different speed around the planet. Information from NASA’s Cassini mission will help reveal how they formed, how they maintain their orbit and, above all, why they are there in the first place.