Titan’s surface is sculpted by flowing methane and ethane, which carves river channels and fills great lakes with liquid natural gas. Subsequent observations showed the same feature better. This region was also discerned from Earth and from the Cassini spacecraft at radar wavelengths, which can penetrate the haze. These images were returned yesterday, 14 January 2005, by ESA's Huygens probe during its successful descent to land on Titan. But rather than water, with surface temperatures of around –180ºC, the fluid involved here is methane, a simple organic compound. What are these bright and dark patches? During the two-and-a-half hour descent of Huygens under parachute, features that looked remarkably like shore lines and river systems on Earth appeared from the atmospheric haze. Over the years, scientists have dramatically changed their minds about Titan's surface. Little was known about Titan’s surface before the Cassini-Huygens mission. Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox. Images taken in near-infrared wavelengths by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994 revealed a bright continent-sized region, later named Xanadu Regio, on Titan’s leading face. Titan’s atmosphere is made mostly of nitrogen, like Earth’s, but with a surface pressure 50 percent higher than Earth’s. Because the moon’s haze is partially transparent to near-infrared light, earlier telescopic studies exploiting this property were able to show that the surface is not uniform. The largest seas are hundreds of feet deep and hundreds of miles wide. The equatorial and temperate regions of Titan have vast areas of dunes formed by windblown sand rich in organic compounds. Titan may have volcanic activity as well, but with liquid water “lava” instead of molten rock. Titan’s surface, like Earth’s, is sculpted by wind and probably also rain (in the form of liquid methane). Premium Membership is now 50% off. Overview of the Cassini spacecraft's investigation of Saturn's moon Titan. Titan's dense atmosphere is opaque at most wavelengths, but Cassini's visible and infrared mapping spectrometer takes pictures at wavelengths in which the atmosphere is clear. The surface is composed of three major types of terrain: bright, rough regions that are similar to Xanadu Regio, dark regions that are rich in water ice, and dark regions that are covered by fields of dunes. As the Cassini spacecraft orbited Saturn, it made numerous observations during a series of close flybys of Titan beginning in late 2004. The Cassini-Huygens mission revealed that Titan’s surface is quite young by planetary standards, with only a few large impact craters observed. There is evidence for the recent condensation of ices on the surface of Titan, perhaps by active geologic processes. Over the years, scientists have dramatically changed their minds about Titan's surface.In the 1990s, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope spied an area on Titan that was brighter than the rest. The continent-size region Xanadu Regio shows as the large bright patch on the right, while bright methane clouds appear near Titan's south pole. Meanwhile, Cassini radar-mapping from orbit revealed a surface pockmarked with lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons. Some scientists believed the bright area could be a continent and the rest oceans, but no one knew for sure, until the arrival of Cassini-Huygens. The Cassini spacecraft discovered an extensive system of lakes filled with liquid hydrocarbons in the north polar region. You have already liked this page, you can only like it once. Titan has clouds, rain, rivers, lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons like methane and ethane. Thus, the role of methane on Titan may be similar to that of water on Earth; that is, it may be the principal agent behind erosion processes. By signing up for this email, you are agreeing to news, offers, and information from Encyclopaedia Britannica. Those lakes are the first stable bodies of surface liquid found off Earth! “River” channels coated with dark hydrocarbon deposits are common, sometimes running along faults and sometimes with extensive tributary systems. The lakes are mostly near … The Cassini-Huygens mission revealed that Titan’s surface is quite young by planetary standards, with only a few large impact craters observed. Near-infrared colors, some three times redder than the human eye can see, reveal what lies beneath the clouds. Scientists have found lakes of methane and other similar chemicals (called hydrocarbons) on Titan. The surface of Titan is very, very cold: around -180° C (-355° F). Reflections of the Sun have been observed on the lakes that confirm that they are filled with liquids rather than ice or sand. The view is centred slightly south of the equator, with north toward the top. The surface temperature and pressure of Titan’s surface is near methane’s triple point (the temperature and pressure at which a substance can coexist as a liquid, a solid, and a gas). The surface is composed of three major types of terrain: bright, rough regions that are similar to Xanadu Regio, dark regions that are rich in water ice , and dark regions that are covered by fields of dunes. At those temperatures methane (also called "natural gas" - like the stuff that your home's furnace or oven might burn) turns into a liquid. The surface of Titan is one of the most Earthlike places in the solar system, albeit at vastly colder temperatures and with different chemistry. The probe touched down on a frozen surface littered with rounded pebbles. Black Friday Sale! On January 14, 2005, the Huygens entry probe became the first spacecraft to land on a planetary surface in the outer solar system, carrying out various physical and chemical measurements of Titan’s atmosphere and transmitting high-resolution images as it descended by parachute.