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16 Facts About Saturn's Moon Titan, The Closest Thing We Have To A Second Earth

Updated September 21, 2018 35.0k views16 items

Saturn’s moon Titan has been the subject of innumerable science fiction works, including Kurt Vonnegut’s classic The Sirens of Titan and Philip K. Dick's The Game-Players of Titan. References to it show up in movies, on TV shows, and on rock albums. Titan might just be the most famous moon in the solar system. But why is Titan so cool? The short answer: because it's more like Earth than you might expect.

Titan has fascinated star-gazers since it was first discovered by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens in 1655. Huygens called the moon Saturni Luna, but it was later renamed by John Herschel for the Titans of Greek mythology.

Despite its relatively early discovery, Titan stumped the scientific community over the next few hundred years. The moon’s hazy atmosphere made it difficult to discern many facts about Titan or unravel its enticing mysteries. More recently, however, thanks to visits by spacecraft like Cassini-Huygens, researchers are learning the exciting truth: Titan has many Earth-like qualities, including flowing liquids, organic compounds and, possibly even a prebiotic environment.

There are plenty of extraordinary things you didn't know about Titan. The fact that it might one day be able to support life is just one of them.

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  • It Has Lakes And Seas

    It Has Lakes And Seas
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS / nasa.gov / Public Domain

    Besides Earth, Titan is the only known body in the solar system with stable bodies of liquid on its surface. Titan’s landscape is littered with various lakes and seas, mainly composed of methane and ethane.

    Those compounds can exist in liquid form there due to the extreme cold.

  • Its Surface Is Constantly Reshaped By Ice Volcanoes

    Its Surface Is Constantly Reshaped By Ice Volcanoes
    Photo: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona / nasa.gov / Public Domain

    Titan’s surface is composed of 50% rocky material and 50% water-ice. Though its average surface height seldom varies more than 150 meters, some taller mountains have been detected. Granular dunes of frozen hydrocarbon cover different areas of the moon, while methane-spewing cryovolcanoes and fluctuating bodes of liquid are thought to constantly reshape the surface.

    Liquid water and ammonia, also believed to be emitted from subsurface activities, form “lava flows” along the surface, solidifying into various frozen features and contributing to the moon’s evolving landscape.

  • It Doesn't Have Many Craters

    It Doesn't Have Many Craters
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI / nasa.gov / Public Domain

    With an ever-changing surface, it’s hard to know how often Titan has been impacted by asteroids or meteors. Since the moon is the size of a small planet, it's likely to have been hit by space debris, though only a few impact sites have been definitively identified.

    But as it orbits the solar system’s second largest planet, Titan may be saved from many impacts; Saturn’s immense gravity likely draws in the bulk of passing objects.

  • It Might Have A Giant Subterranean Ocean

    It Might Have A Giant Subterranean Ocean
    Photo: A. D. Fortes/UCL/STFC / nasa.gov / Public Domain

    Titan is thought to have a slightly slushy core comprised of rock and ice. But its inner body might also be encircled by a vast subterranean ocean. It’s fun to speculate what might exist in the depths below Titan’s icy surface but, with limited data, scientists can’t yet make detailed predictions about the hypothetical ocean.

    Still, the prospect of an underground body of water with volcanic activity raises some researchers' hopes for the potential of extraterrestrial life there.