Another day, another achievement of the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope of NASA/ESA is revealed. Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is now under the spotlight once again due to new observations of Webb using its infrared vision. The telescope is studying the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon, which is, otherwise, a huge mystery.
For decades, astronomers have been craving to learn more about Titan and understand why the cosmic object is so stubborn. Saturn’s largest moon has seas and clouds, but unlike those from Earth, the ones from Titan are made of methane and ethane. Otherwise, Titan is just one out of a total of 83 moons that the planet Saturn has. Or at least that’s how many astronomers have discovered so far; perhaps there are even more objects revolving around the gas giant of our Solar System. The huge number of moons orbiting Saturn, compared to just one revolving around our planet, shouldn’t surprise us, however. More than 700 planets the size of Earth could fit inside Saturn.
Webb’s NIRCam enters the cosmic scene
Webb’s NIRCam tool is responsible for the most recent images that the telescope has caught of Titan. It’s also the primary imaging device of the telescope, and it’s capable of detecting infrared light.
1/ 🆕 Scientists have waited for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study #Titan’s atmosphere. Now they finally did it! These are images of 🪐 Saturn’s moon Titan, captured by Webb's #NIRCam instrument. pic.twitter.com/ZuIEc3vWpV
— ESA Webb Telescope (@ESA_Webb) December 1, 2022
A quote from NASA’s blog writes:
We had waited for years to use Webb’s infrared vision to study Titan’s atmosphere, including its fascinating weather patterns and gaseous composition, and also see through the haze to study albedo features (bright and dark patches) on the surface. Titan’s atmosphere is incredibly interesting, not only due to its methane clouds and storms, but also because of what it can tell us about Titan’s past and future – including whether it always had an atmosphere.
At this point, Saturn is the champion of the Solar System, considering the planet’s number of moons. Jupiter falls immediately below, with 80 discovered moons orbiting it. This is indeed surprising, considering that Jupiter is significantly larger than Saturn.
While sixty-three moons of Saturn were confirmed and dubbed, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is expected to confirm and bring official monikers for the existence of the other 20 potential moons.
Life on Titan?
What’s for sure is that astronomers still have a lot of work to do to determine if life of any kind can survive on the Titan moon. There is some potential for the rivers, lakes, and seas existing on Titan to serve as a habitable environment. While life, as we all know it on Earth, is practically unable to survive on the moon of Saturn, nobody knows exactly what forms and different chemical combinations extraterrestrial life might have. Therefore, if there are any alien life forms existing on Titan, they would look nothing like us or like any other life form existing on Earth.
Liquid water is one of the ‘must have’ ingredients for life that are required for a planet. On Earth, no organism can possibly survive without liquid water. It applies to any living being, from microscopic cyanobacteria to giant blue whales.
Robert Zubrin, who’s an American aerospace engineer, brought up some interesting claims regarding the possibility of Titan to harbor life. He claims that the moon has an abundance of all the elements that are necessary to support life, adding that “in certain ways, Titan is the most hospitable extraterrestrial world within our solar system for human colonization.”
Even though Saturn is the planet of our Solar System where the most moons exist, Jupiter has the biggest natural satellite, the one called Ganymede. Astronomers were shocked to conclude that Ganymede is even larger than Mercury, the first planet from the Sun.