Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Not with a roar, but with a splat

I've been fascinated by the ongoing Huygens/Titan coverage, gobbling up the trickle of information coming out of ESA. The fact that images returned by Cassini indicate some sort of drainage channels and an apparent shoreline has all manner of fascinating implications for a science fiction writer such as myself. As does the fact Huygens apparently landed on a "gooey" surface which is being equated to mud--liquid methane saturated mud.
Scientists had theorised that the probe would drop out of the haze at between 70 and 50 kilometres. In fact, Huygens began to emerge from the haze only at 30 kilometres above the surface.

When the probe landed, it was not with a thud, or a splash, but a 'splat'. It landed in Titanian 'mud'.

"I think the biggest surprise is that we survived landing and that we lasted so long," said DISR team member Charles See. "There wasn't even a glitch at impact. That landing was a lot friendlier than we anticipated."

DISR's downward-looking High Resolution Imager camera lens apparently accumulated some material, which suggests the probe may have settled into the surface. "Either that, or we steamed hydrocarbons off the surface and they collected onto the lens," said See.

One very interesting speculation from a discussion I'm on posed the possibility of tides on Titan, corresponding with the periapsis and apoapsis of Titan's orbit around Saturn:
The Titan "hydroid" ("methanoid"?), though, should rise and fall then, roughly as much as Earth's oceans, but instead of radially sweeping around the world, they would go from two concentrations of liquid at 0 and 180 to a relative falling level there and relative increasing level everywhere else....

In January, Titan was at periapsis (when the Huygens site would have been at high tide) around Jan. 10, and was more than halfway to low tide when Huygens landed. We may have missed standing water [methane] by five [Earth] days.

The author ("jarehling") goes on to point out that under this scenario, the "windblown" erosion features seen in images from the site could be the result of liquid methane flow. The channels seen in high-altitude images, of course, would play a role in the tidal migration of the methane sea as Titan progresses in its orbit around the parent world. Amazing speculations, even if they prove to be unfounded in this case. Such are the ideas that great SFnal worldbuilding springs!

Of course, ESA's snail's pace release of the good stuff from Huygens is frustrating, but there are enterprising folks out there that are taking the raw materials and stepping into the breach, so to speak. There's a great mosaic composition of the descent panorama over at The Planetary Society, and Anthony Lienkins has put together some very nice color enhanced images which, while probably not 100 percent spectrally accurate, give a pretty darn clear look at what Titan's immediate surface area looks like. Good stuff!

Now Playing: Creedence Clearwater Revival Chronicle vol. 1

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