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Titan Unveiled: Saturn's Mysterious Moon Explored
     

Titan Unveiled: Saturn's Mysterious Moon Explored

by Ralph Lorenz
 

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For twenty-five years following the Voyager mission, scientists speculated about Saturn's largest moon, a mysterious orb clouded in orange haze. Finally, in 2005, the Cassini-Huygens probe successfully parachuted down through Titan's atmosphere, all the while transmitting images and data. In the early 1980s, when the two Voyager spacecraft skimmed past Titan,

Overview

For twenty-five years following the Voyager mission, scientists speculated about Saturn's largest moon, a mysterious orb clouded in orange haze. Finally, in 2005, the Cassini-Huygens probe successfully parachuted down through Titan's atmosphere, all the while transmitting images and data. In the early 1980s, when the two Voyager spacecraft skimmed past Titan, Saturn's largest moon, they transmitted back enticing images of a mysterious world concealed in a seemingly impenetrable orange haze. Titan Unveiled is one of the first general interest books to reveal the startling new discoveries that have been made since the arrival of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan.

Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton take readers behind the scenes of this mission. Launched in 1997, Cassini entered orbit around Saturn in summer 2004. Its formidable payload included the Huygens probe, which successfully parachuted down through Titan's atmosphere in early 2005, all the while transmitting images and data--and scientists were startled by what they saw. One of those researchers was Lorenz, who gives an insider's account of the scientific community's first close encounter with an alien landscape of liquid methane seas and turbulent orange skies. Amid the challenges and frayed nerves, new discoveries are made, including methane monsoons, equatorial sand seas, and Titan's polar hood. Lorenz and Mitton describe Titan as a world strikingly like Earth and tell how Titan may hold clues to the origins of life on our own planet and possibly to its presence on others.

Generously illustrated with many stunning images, Titan Unveiled is essential reading for anyone interested in space exploration, planetary science, or astronomy.

A new afterword brings readers up to date on Cassini's ongoing exploration of Titan, describing the many new discoveries made since 2006.

Editorial Reviews

Nature
Titan Unveiled describes how most of what we once hypothesized about Titan has been proved wrong. The story of how we gained our current knowledge is fascinating; even more intriguing is what remains to be learned.
— Henry Roe
Natural History
Ralph Lorenz . . . has teamed with veteran science journalist Jaqueline Mitton to convey both the human and scientific drama of remote robotic space exploration.
— Laurence A. Marschall
Scientific American
Lorenz, a planetary scientist, and Mitton, a science writer, vividly describe this encounter with an alien landscape; excerpts from Lorenz's log convey what it was like to be involved with the mission.
American Scientist
[A]n engrossing firsthand account of one of humankind's greatest adventures of recent years. It will take decades to prepare a new mission and then an additional seven years for another spacecraft to reach titan. In the meantime, Titan Unveiled provides the general reader with a lively narrative that combines a reliable, nontechnical account of the Cassini-Huygens mission with personal and often intimate insights into these efforts to explore a fascinating planetary analogue to the Earth.
— Fred Taylor
Times Higher Education
[A]n enjoyable mix: a very accessible summary of current knowledge about Titan is combined with a firsthand account that gives a flavour of what it has been like to be part of this grand, bold, international collaboration that is the Cassini-Huygens project.
Booklist
Titan's allure seems only to increase the more scientists learn about it...Obscured by haze, the landscape has been exposed by radar, special optical cameras, and the Huygens lander. The authors cover in detail the information gathered by these and other instruments, which impart a practical sense of how scientists work from raw data toward finished interpretations...Including amazing photographs of Titan's evident geological dynamism, Lorenz and Mitton's work has a high 'wow' factor that will thrill buffs and may spur students toward a planetary science career.
— Gilbert Taylor
New Scientist
An insider's look behind the headlines, focusing on the thought processes and instrumentation tricks involved. Lorenz's bloglike entries liven up the prose, but the star is Titan.
— Richard Lovett
Nature Geoscience
This fantastic book shines a light on the truth of the matter: that science is about a sense of wonder, awe, the joy of finding stuff.
Choice
Lorenz, the author of this popular account of Titan, is intimately involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission as a planetary scientist, and he contributes personal anecdotes as well as a thorough treatment of the science and technology of missions to Saturn and its moons.
— M. Dickinson
Sky & Telescope
A fascinating read.
— David Tytell
Physics World
Titan Unveiled is highly recommended to the intellectually curious general public, as well as to the most seasoned planetary scientists and engineers. In fact, anyone with an interest in science, astronomy, planetary science and exploration, engineering or the evolution of our own planet will find this book captivating and uplifting. Landing on Titan has been one of the greatest adventures of the current decade . . .
— Agustin Chicarro
Space Times
[W]hile expert readers in the science and engineering community will find much of interest here, it is the book's less technical target audience that will benefit the most. Apart from unveiling the mysteries of an alien world, it opens a window on the mostly hidden world of the planetary scientist, which is equally fascinating.
— Mark Williamson
Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin
Illustrated with many stunning images, Titan Unveiled is essential reading for anyone interested in space exploration, planetary science, or astronomy.
Coalition for Space Exploration
Titan Unveiled is a great read. It also may well prepare the reader for more adventures to Titan in the future.
Key Reporter
Titan Unveiled unveils not only this remarkable moon but also the way that science is done, at least with large scale planetary science. High-school and college students would benefit from following the twists and turns, and the evolving thought, of the scientists involved. And the general reader will enjoy seeing scientific progress revealed as well as the coverage of excellent and interesting results.
— Jay Pasachoff
From the Publisher

"Titan Unveiled describes how most of what we once hypothesized about Titan has been proved wrong. The story of how we gained our current knowledge is fascinating; even more intriguing is what remains to be learned."--Henry Roe, Nature

"Ralph Lorenz . . . has teamed with veteran science journalist Jaqueline Mitton to convey both the human and scientific drama of remote robotic space exploration."--Laurence A. Marschall, Natural History

"Lorenz, a planetary scientist, and Mitton, a science writer, vividly describe this encounter with an alien landscape; excerpts from Lorenz's log convey what it was like to be involved with the mission."--Scientific American

"[A]n engrossing firsthand account of one of humankind's greatest adventures of recent years. It will take decades to prepare a new mission and then an additional seven years for another spacecraft to reach titan. In the meantime, Titan Unveiled provides the general reader with a lively narrative that combines a reliable, nontechnical account of the Cassini-Huygens mission with personal and often intimate insights into these efforts to explore a fascinating planetary analogue to the Earth."--Fred Taylor, American Scientist

"[A]n enjoyable mix: a very accessible summary of current knowledge about Titan is combined with a firsthand account that gives a flavour of what it has been like to be part of this grand, bold, international collaboration that is the Cassini-Huygens project."--Times Higher Education

"Titan's allure seems only to increase the more scientists learn about it...Obscured by haze, the landscape has been exposed by radar, special optical cameras, and the Huygens lander. The authors cover in detail the information gathered by these and other instruments, which impart a practical sense of how scientists work from raw data toward finished interpretations...Including amazing photographs of Titan's evident geological dynamism, Lorenz and Mitton's work has a high 'wow' factor that will thrill buffs and may spur students toward a planetary science career."--Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

"An insider's look behind the headlines, focusing on the thought processes and instrumentation tricks involved. Lorenz's bloglike entries liven up the prose, but the star is Titan."--Richard Lovett, New Scientist

"This fantastic book shines a light on the truth of the matter: that science is about a sense of wonder, awe, the joy of finding stuff."--Nature Geoscience

"Lorenz, the author of this popular account of Titan, is intimately involved in the Cassini-Huygens mission as a planetary scientist, and he contributes personal anecdotes as well as a thorough treatment of the science and technology of missions to Saturn and its moons."--M. Dickinson, Choice

"A fascinating read."--David Tytell, Sky & Telescope

"Titan Unveiled is highly recommended to the intellectually curious general public, as well as to the most seasoned planetary scientists and engineers. In fact, anyone with an interest in science, astronomy, planetary science and exploration, engineering or the evolution of our own planet will find this book captivating and uplifting. Landing on Titan has been one of the greatest adventures of the current decade."--Agustin Chicarro, Physics World

"[W]hile expert readers in the science and engineering community will find much of interest here, it is the book's less technical target audience that will benefit the most. Apart from unveiling the mysteries of an alien world, it opens a window on the mostly hidden world of the planetary scientist, which is equally fascinating."--Mark Williamson, Space Times

"Illustrated with many stunning images, Titan Unveiled is essential reading for anyone interested in space exploration, planetary science, or astronomy."--Lunar and Planetary Information Bulletin

"Titan Unveiled is a great read. It also may well prepare the reader for more adventures to Titan in the future."--Coalition for Space Exploration

"Titan Unveiled unveils not only this remarkable moon but also the way that science is done, at least with large scale planetary science. High-school and college students would benefit from following the twists and turns, and the evolving thought, of the scientists involved. And the general reader will enjoy seeing scientific progress revealed as well as the coverage of excellent and interesting results."--Jay Pasachoff, Key Reporter

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781400834754
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
07/01/2010
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
280
Sales rank:
1,049,939
File size:
8 MB

Read an Excerpt

Titan Unveiled Saturn's Mysterious Moon Explored


By Ralph Lorenz Jacqueline Mitton Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12587-9


Chapter One The Lure of Titan

On July 1, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn after a journey from Earth lasting almost seven years. At 6.8 m in length, this monstrous robotic explorer was the largest western spacecraft ever to be dispatched on an interplanetary mission. Its battery of scientific instruments was designed to return images and data not only from the giant planet itself and its spectacular ring system, but also from members of Saturn's family of over fifty moons. Foremost in interest among the diverse collection of icy worlds in orbit around Saturn was Titan, a body so special, so intriguing in its own right that Cassini carried with it a detachable package of instruments-named the Huygens probe-that would parachute through Titan's atmosphere to observe its surface.

By any reckoning, Titan is an unusual moon. It is 5,150 km across- nearly 50 percent bigger than our own Moon and 6 percent larger than Mercury. If it happened to orbit around the Sun, its size and character would easily make it as much a planet as Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. But the landscape of this extraordinary world remained hidden to us throughout the first decades of the space age, partially because of Titan's remote location and partially because it is swathed in a thick andvisually impenetrable blanket of haze. Thanks to Cassini-Huygens and the technological advances that have vastly extended the reach of ground-based telescopes, the situation has now changed dramatically. Titan is undergoing an all-out scientific assault both by the most powerful telescopes on Earth and from the cameras and radar aboard Cassini, the flagship international space mission. This observational barrage, topped off by the Huygens probe's daring drop down to the surface of Titan, is serving to unveil this enigmatic moon, revealing more of its intriguing features than we have ever seen before.

THE IMPERATIVE TO EXPLORE

When the two Voyager craft sped past Jupiter and Saturn between 1979 and 1981, they returned a wealth of new information about the two giant planets and their moons. But the images and data received from these missions were essentially snapshots-fleeting opportunistic glances at worlds demanding more serious and systematic attention. And as far as Titan was concerned, the results of these flybys were especially disappointing.

Observing Titan was a high priority for the planners of the Voyager missions, and in November 1980, Voyager 1 passed Titan at a distance of 4,394 km. The encounter sent the spacecraft hurtling out of the plane of the solar system and prevented it from exploring any more moons or planets. However, curiosity about Titan was so great that the sacrifice was considered worth making.

A principal reason for the great interest in Titan was the fact that it possesses a significant atmosphere. Astronomers had been aware of Titan's atmosphere since 1944, when Gerard Kuiper announced that spectra he had taken of Titan revealed the presence of methane gas. Therefore, planetary scientists were not going to be surprised to find haze or clouds in the atmosphere, but at the very least, they hoped that parts of Titan's surface would be visible when Voyager arrived.

Unfortunately, those hopes were completely dashed. The whole of Titan proved to be shrouded from pole to pole in opaque orange haze. Voyager's camera was sensitive only to visible light, and the spacecraft carried no instruments (such as an infrared camera or imaging radar) capable of probing below the haze. Voyager was able to return some important new data about the atmosphere but virtually nothing about the surface.

The exploration of the Jupiter and Saturn systems continued to beckon, however, and the next logical step was to send orbiters to make close and detailed observations over a sustained period of time.

Between the two of them, Jupiter and Saturn possess five of the seven largest moons of the solar system, and they both have far more known moons than any of the other major planets. With such a variety of planetary bodies to observe from close quarters, not to mention Saturn's iconic ring system, the urge to send orbiters was very compelling. As the nearer of the two, Jupiter was the first to be targeted. The Galileo spacecraft was launched on its six-year journey to Jupiter from the space shuttle in 1989. It operated successfully between 1995 and 2003 and was deliberately crashed into Jupiter at the end of its useful life.

An orbiter for Saturn was scheduled to follow, and Titan was firmly in the sights of the Saturn mission planners. The Voyager experience generated an overwhelming incentive to design a mission to the Saturnian system capable of discovering what lay below Titan's haze. Both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) were involved from early on with the conception and development of the mission; the idea from the beginning was to send an orbiter carrying a Titan probe. In what turned out to be a highly successful international collaboration, NASA provided the orbiter and ESA built the probe. The orbiter was named in honor of Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the French-Italian astronomer who discovered four of Saturn's moons and the gap separating the two main rings. The probe was named after Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch astronomer who discovered Titan. Cassini would be equipped with radar and infrared imaging capabilities for penetrating the haze; the independent probe was to parachute through the haze and radio back via Cassini the data collected by its instruments and camera.

No mission as complex as Cassini-Huygens had ever before been undertaken at such an immense distance from Earth. Even when Earth and Saturn are at their closest, the gulf between them is around 1.3 billion km. By the time Cassini was launched in 1997, Galileo had been performing well at Jupiter for nearly two years, even though its main communications dish had failed to unfurl correctly. But Saturn is roughly twice as far away as Jupiter. Light and radio signals take over an hour to make the one-way trip between Saturn and Earth, and even getting to Saturn at all would be less than straightforward.

Cassini's route was necessarily a convoluted one. The 5.5-ton spacecraft was launched by a powerful rocket but could not make the journey in a reasonable time without extra impetus. To get some additional kicks, the mission design relied on "gravity assist"-a maneuvering technique whereby spacecraft pick up speed from close encounters with planets. Before it could set out properly on the main leg of its journey to Saturn, Cassini made two loops around the inner solar system. To gather enough speed, it skimmed close to Venus on two separate passes and then swung by Earth. Some two years after it had been launched on October 15, 1997, Cassini was finally catapulted away from the vicinity of Earth and toward the outer solar system. It received a final boost at Jupiter, about the halfway point. After being maneuvered into orbit around Saturn in July 2004, it embarked on a long series of loops, carefully planned to allow scrutiny of the planet, rings, and moons by its eleven instruments. If all went well, it would keep going for at least four more years.

On December 25, 2004, Huygens parted company with Cassini and for twenty days followed an independent orbit that would bring it close to Titan. Then, on January 14, 2005, Huygens plunged into Titan's atmosphere. As it descended to the surface, it transmitted data for two hours and twenty-eight minutes and conducted operations for over three hours after landing, until its batteries were dead. Unfortunately, after one hour and twelve minutes, Cassini was below the horizon and could no longer relay the probe's data back to Earth; also, a technical glitch caused the loss of some information for one experiment (though it was largely recovered by radio telescopes observing from Earth). Otherwise, to the delight of the triumphant science teams who anxiously monitored its progress, the probe worked almost entirely according to plan.

Even before Huygens reached Titan, the Cassini orbiter had begun its own program of mapping and remote sensing that would take it on dozens of close encounters with Titan. All eleven of its instruments were to be used to collect data on Titan; the expected deluge of information began to arrive on cue in the second half of 2004. The time had come to test the many hypotheses and speculations surrounding what would be found on Titan.

In the following chapters, we tell the story of how Cassini and Huygens have finally begun to lift the veil of mystery surrounding Titan, beginning with advancements in our understanding of Titan that took place in the decade preceding Cassini's arrival. Some predictions have proved gratifyingly accurate; others have turned out to be misconceived, however plausible they may have seemed initially. Though many questions can now be answered-even some that no one thought to ask-they have quickly been replaced by a torrent of new and deeper puzzles.

But before we get to that story, we should set the scene. In broad-brush terms, when was Titan discovered, what kind of world is it, and where in our solar system does it fit in the scheme of things?

DISCOVERY

Born in The Hague in the Netherlands, Christiaan Huygens (1629-95) discovered Titan on March 25, 1655. He announced the existence of Saturn's moon a year later, and then went on to famously develop the wave theory of light and to become one of the greatest scientists of the seventeenth century. Besides possessing outstanding abilities as a theorist and mathematician, his many talents also included a practical bent. With his brother Constantyn, he designed and constructed a machine that could produce telescope lenses of better optical quality than any other at the time. Using a telescope made with one of these home-produced high-quality lenses, Huygens identified Titan as a moon of Saturn. Titan was the first planetary satellite to be discovered since 1610, when Galileo had found the four large "Galilean" moons of Jupiter, later named Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto.

Though he discovered Titan, Huygens did not call it anything other than "Luna Saturni." For nearly two hundred years, the world we now call Titan was anonymous. The relatively small number of then-known planetary satellites were referred to by numbers. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, new discoveries of more moons had rendered ambiguous the existing numbering system (wherein satellites were numbered in order of distance from their primary), so Sir John Herschel proposed the idea of giving moons individual names. From about 1848 on, astronomers happily adopted the names from classical mythology, including Titan, that Herschel had suggested.

ONE OF A FAMILY

Living up to its name, Titan truly dwarfs the rest of Saturn's natural satellites. In sheer size, Titan shares more in common with its four substantial cousins in orbit around Jupiter. What its siblings lack in size, however, they make up for in number. As we write, the total count of Saturn's moons is at least fifty-six. The number of known satellites began to rise dramatically in 2000 because the Saturnian system was under close scrutiny from Earth in advance of Cassini's arrival. In 2004, Cassini itself took up the search and found yet more. Saturn, perhaps more than any other planetary body, prompts the question, What is a moon? After all, each of the countless millions of ring particles is a distinct, rigid body, following its own orbit around Saturn, but it would be silly to call them all satellites.

Titan's size was not determined conclusively until the flyby of Voyager 1 in 1980. Early estimates were all based on the tricky business of measuring Titan's apparent diameter when it is seen as a "flat" disk in the sky. (This measurement is tricky because Titan is dark toward its edges, unlike the disk of the Moon, which is nearly uniformly bright right to its edges.) The best measurements indicated a size of about two-thirds of an arcsecond (about the size of a golf ball eight miles [13 km] away). The opaque atmosphere further complicated the issue by making the visible disk look larger than Titan's solid body really is. As a result, its diameter was overestimated. Experiments conducted during an occultation in the 1970s, when the Moon crossed in front of Titan, produced a figure of 5,800 km. For a time, Titan was thought to be the largest moon in the solar system, but then it was demoted to second place in the rankings when the results came back from Voyager 1's radio science experiment.

As Voyager 1 passed behind Titan's atmosphere, the spacecraft's radio signals were first deflected (though not blocked) by the moon's atmospheric gas. Analysis of the degree of deflection provided information on the temperature and pressure of Titan's atmosphere at various altitudes. Then, the spacecraft's radio signals were cut off completely when the spacecraft went behind Titan's solid globe. With these data, Titan's true diameter could be assessed: 5,150 km (to within 1 km), or 60 km less than that of Jupiter's moon Ganymede.

Titan's mass was first estimated in the nineteenth century by its effect on the orbit of Hyperion, the next Saturnian satellite out from Titan. The effect of Titan's gravity on the trajectory of Voyager 1 allowed an even more precise measurement. Combining its size and mass (1.346 x [10.sup.23] kg) tells us that the average density of Titan is 1.88 times that of water, which is slightly higher than that of any of Saturn's other larger satellites. By comparison, the value for our rocky Moon is 3.34, and Earth, with its iron core, has a value of 5.52. Considering average density alone, Titan must be some mixture of ice and rock. Most likely, it consists of a rocky core overlain by a mantle chiefly made of ice.

It is no surprise to find that Titan, like all other satellites in the cold outer solar system (apart from Jupiter's exceptional moon, Io), has a substantial proportion of ice. The temperature at Titan's surface is around 94 K (or -179[degrees]C). Solar heating is so feeble and temperatures are generally so low that water ice is as hard as rock is on Earth-although like rock on Earth, the ice may be soft or even molten in the deep interior of Titan.

Jupiter's volcanically active moon Io (diameter 3,642 km), closest to Jupiter of its four large satellites, is the odd one out among the satellites of the outer planets, particularly with regard to composition. Io is made of rock and sulfur, and has virtually no water. Its interior temperature is raised to melting point by tidal energy resulting from its orbital motion within Jupiter's powerful gravity field. (The mechanism of tidal heating is similar to the way the gravity of the Sun and Moon raises tides in Earth's oceans.)

Europa (3,130 km), the second of Jupiter's Galilean moons, must be principally rock according to its average density. However, its surface layers are mainly water. Although its outer crust is frozen, a great deal of evidence strongly suggests that the crust floats on a global ocean of liquid water. Like Io, Europa is heated below its surface by tidal energy.

The other two large moons orbiting Jupiter, Ganymede (5,268 km) and Callisto (4,806 km), both have a higher proportion of ice and are more like Titan in this regard, though Ganymede's density is a bit higher than Titan's and Callisto's is a little lower. Unexpectedly, magnetic measurements made by the Galileo spacecraft hinted that Callisto, like Europa, may have an internal ocean, even though the tidal heating it experiences is not nearly as great as Europa's. These measurements also raise the intriguing possibility that Titan might have a subsurface ocean too.

Titan's more immediate neighbors in the Saturnian system each have individual characteristics and mysteries of their own, but looking at them alongside Titan only emphasizes the unique qualities of exceptional size and atmosphere that make Titan particularly fascinating. And if these lesser worlds have such varied and unexpected features, what greater surprises might be waiting on Titan?

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Titan Unveiled by Ralph Lorenz Jacqueline Mitton
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

French
Titan Unveiled is an authentic and lively insider's account of one of the grand enterprises in modern space exploration. The authors present a compelling human story of interplanetary exploration, rich in detail and strong on science. Readers get an authoritative description of many of the latest results from Cassini.
Richard G. French, Wellesley College and Cassini Radio Science Team
Turner
This book could hardly be more timely. Titan is inarguably one of the most intriguing objects in the solar system, and the wealth of new information revealed by the successful Cassini-Huygens mission is revolutionizing our knowledge of this mysterious moon. Lorenz and Mitton are well qualified for the project, and have written a very compelling book.
Edwin L. Turner, Princeton University
Mike Brown
A great book for anyone wanting to know what it's like to be on the front lines of a mission to perhaps the most fascinating planetary body in the solar system. Lorenz and Mitton bring home the fact that planetary exploration is not a faceless enterprise done by anonymous men in white coats, but a personal adventure carried along by real people with real charisma, real quirks, and real lives.
Mike Brown, California Institute of Technology
McKay
This is the first trade book that looks at the mission results in a comprehensive way. It gives a summary of our knowledge of Titan prior to the probe, describes the history of the probe project, and discusses the results from the mission. I am not aware of any books like this one.
Christopher P. McKay, NASA Ames Research Center

Meet the Author

Ralph Lorenz is a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Jacqueline Mitton is a writer, editor, and media consultant in astronomy. They are the coauthors of "Lifting Titan's Veil: Exploring the Giant Moon of Saturn".

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