October 23, 2013
PASADENA, Calif.– With the sun now shining down over the north pole of Saturn’s moon Titan, a little luck with the weather, and trajectories that put the spacecraft into optimal viewing positions, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has obtained new pictures of the liquid methane and ethane seas and lakes that reside near Titan’s north pole. The images reveal new clues about how the lakes formed and about Titan’s Earth-like “hydrologic” cycle, which involves hydrocarbons rather than water.
While there is one large lake and a few smaller ones near Titan’s south pole, almost all of Titan’s lakes appear near the moon’s north pole. Cassini scientists have been able to study much of the terrain with radar, which can penetrate beneath Titan’s clouds and thick haze. And until now, Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and imaging science subsystem had only been able to capture distant, oblique or partial views of this area.
Several factors combined recently to give these instruments great observing opportunities. Two recent flybys provided better viewing geometry. Sunlight has begun to pierce the winter darkness that shrouded Titan’s north pole at Cassini’s arrival in the Saturn system nine years ago. A thick cap of haze that once hung over the north pole has also dissipated as northern summer approaches. And Titan’s beautiful, nearly cloudless, rain-free weather continued during Cassini’s flybys this past summer.