US space agency Nasa has released a stunning image revealing the polar seas on one one of Saturn’s moons alongside sun glints for the first time.
Shot by Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft in late August, the image shows sun light reflecting off Titan's swirling surface.
Titan is the largest of Saturn’s 53 official moons, and is the second largest moon in the Solar System, after Jupiter’s Ganymede. With a diameter 50 per cent larger that Earth’s moon, Titan is mainly composed of water, ice and rocky material while its atmosphere is largely nitrogen.
In the past, Cassini has captured separate images of the polar seas and the sun shining against them (as show below), but this is the first time both have been seen together in the same view.
The sun's glint, also called a specular reflection, appears in the image as the bright area near the 11 o'clock position on the upper left. This mirror-like reflection, known as the specular point, is in the south of Titan's largest sea, Kraken Mare, just north of an island archipelago separating two separate parts of the sea.
The image is also particularly special because the sun’s glint appears much higher than in has in previous collections of data.
And when the image was captured, the sun’s glint was so bright that it saturated the detector of Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. Because it was so bright, this glint was visible through the haze at much lower wavelengths than before, down to 1.3 microns.
Where to explore in the solar system
Where to explore in the solar system
1/10 Mars - Olympus Mons
Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in the Solar System. At 22km high Olympus Mons is nearly three times as high as Mt Everest
2/10 Mars - Mount Sharp
Mount Sharp is the current focus point of the Mars Science Laboratory’s Curiosity rover. Sitting at the forefront of Martian research this location will hopefully unlock the secrets of Mars’s past.
3/10 Ida and Dactyl
Nestled deep within the asteroid belt is the asteroid 243 Ida. During a fly by of the Galileo space probe it was discovered that Ida had a companion. Orbiting around Ida was a tiny moon that was named Dactyl.
4/10 Jupiter - The Red Spot
Getting tired of leisurely cruises through the Caribbean? Why not float a dirigible through one of the oldest known storms in the Solar System. Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is large enough to contain three Earths and has been present for over 300 years.
5/10 Moon - Sea of Tranquility
As the landing site of the first ever humans to set foot on the Moon who wouldn’t want to walk in the footsteps on Neil Armstrong on the Sea of Tranquility?
6/10 Europa - Underwater seas
Europa’s underwater seas are one of the strongest candidates for potential life outside Earth. Scientists are waiting the day we can probe their icy depths.
7/10 Titan - Methane Lakes
Saturn’s Moon Titan is home to a nice thick atmosphere. Similar to the Earth it supports a full weather cycle. Unlike the Earth, rather than using water, Titan’s cycle is based on methane, often found in gas cookers here on Earth.
8/10 Mimas, the Death Moon
What better location for a holiday snap. The large Herschel crater on Mimas gives this moon an appearance of a certain dark lords ultimate weapon. When viewed from the right angle it appears that the Death Star is in orbit around Saturn.
The thick clouds of Venus make it an extremely mysterious place. It also has some of the most extreme weather we can find. Runaway greenhouse gases have shrouded the planet in a thick layer of cloud, heating it to nearly 600°C. It is also home to sulphuric acid rain and crushing atmospheric pressure. Make sure you pack a sturdy umbrella!
10/10 Oceans of Earth
One of the most unexplored places in the Solar System is our own oceans. 70% of the Earth is covered in ocean and as of yet we have only explored around 10% of them. With so much water to explore who knows what we may find lurking in the depths.
From the image, scientists understand that the Kraken Mare sea was larger at some point in the past, but has since evaporated.
This is revealed by the southern portion of the Kraken mare - the area surrounding the specular feature toward upper left – which has a “bathtub ring” made of material left behind after the methane and ethane liquid evaporated – similarly to the saline crust which remains on a salt flat.
But the snap is not a photograph, but rather an image comprised of ‘real colour information’ in wavelengths that correspond to atmospheric windows through which Titan's surface is visible, according to Nasa. The unaided human eye would see nothing but haze.
Cassini captured this image by flying by Titan, with the area seen immediately to the right of the sunglint being the highest resolution data collected. It reveals the labyrinth of channels that connect Kraken Mare to another large sea, Ligeia Mare.
Ligeia Mare itself is partially covered in its northern reaches by a bright, arrow-shaped complex of clouds. The clouds are made of liquid methane droplets, and could be actively refilling the lakes with rainfall.Reuse content