Professor discusses Earth-like world of Saturn moon

UT professor Devon Burr discussed the similarities between Earth and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

//Photo by Ryan McGill

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At the March 4 Quest Science Forum, UT professor Devon Burr spoke about the “surprisingly earth-like world” of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Even though it is in the outer solar system, Titan shares many similarities with Earth and other terrestrial planets. For example, like Earth, Titan’s atmosphere is predominately made of nitrogen. This fact was confirmed by the Voyager Spacecraft in 1980, though Burr said it is highly unusual for an Outer Solar System planet to even have an atmosphere.

This thick atmosphere makes it difficult for scientists to see down to the surface of Titan. Burr compared the moon’s atmosphere to Los Angeles smog— yellow and hazy. Seeing through the atmosphere requires looking at radar images to study the surface features.

With radar and mapping technologies, scientists have learned that Titan’s surface has many dry river channels that move in patterns similar to those of Earth’s river systems. Scientists believe that Titan has subsurface oceans, meaning that the rock below the surface is extremely saturated with water.

The radar also picks up images of sand dunes on Titan, which are about 100 meters high and cover about 20 percent of the surface. Burr said these dunes are made up of particles similar to those found in the atmosphere, leading them to believe that the dunes are created by aerosols that rain down from above.

Titan’s extreme distance from the sun causes it to receive only one-hundredths of the energy from the sun that Earth does. In 1997, the Cassini-Huygens mission was sent to Titan as one of NASA’s last billion dollar missions.

“Because the spacecraft was so far away from the sun, it wasn’t possible to use solar energy like we would with an inner solar system mission,” Burr said. “So we basically used nuclear energy.”

In the next decade, Burr said, NASA is prioritizing going to Venus, the moon, the Trojan Asteroids and Uranus. She also noted missions launching to the Asteroid Belt next year and Mars in 2020.

The science forum will not be held for the next three Fridays, but will begin again on April 1 with a discussion on Pluto.

Featured image by Ryan McGill

Edited by Courtney Anderson