NASA's Saturn orbiter, the Cassini spacecraft, has taken a stunning glimpse into Titan's thick atmosphere, revealing its vast lakes of liquid methane and ethane, plus possible analogs of terrestrial salt flats.
This stunning view of the massive moon's north pole was stitched together as a mosaic from a series of observations made by Cassini during flybys on July 10, July 26, and Sept. 12, 2013. Until now, the spacecraft hasn't been able to use its visual and infrared spectrometer to see these vast expanses of liquids, but through a combination of fortunate events, the clouds parted to allow us a peek down onto Titan's surface.
Like many of the most iconic space images, serendipity had a part to play in Cassini's flyby photo op. The sun is in the perfect location shining down on Titan's north pole and Cassini was on the optimal trajectory to catch the shot. All that was needed was the weather down on Titan to oblige and, apparently, it did.
Until now, the north pole lakes have only been probed by Cassini's radar or from oblique angles, limiting the amount of detail that could be obtained from afar. This new colorized mosaic from the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer has revealed some interesting mineralogical features never before realized.
There appear to be composition variations surrounding the lakes, indicative of evaporation from the bodies of liquids. During their retreat, the lakes may have left something akin to Earth's salt flats -- regions where water has receded and minerals once contained in the water is left behind. However, in Titan's case, it seems that the "salt flats" are rich in organic compounds that were dissolved in liquid methane.
It's findings such as these that add detail to our understanding of Titan's complex "hydrologic" cycle.
"The view from Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer gives us a holistic view of an area that we'd only seen in bits and pieces before and at a lower resolution," said Jason Barnes, a participating scientist for the instrument at the University of Idaho, Moscow, in a mission news release. "It turns out that Titan's north pole is even more interesting than we thought, with a complex interplay of liquids in lakes and seas and deposits left from the evaporation of past lakes and seas."